After refusing port entry to a U.S. Coast Guard cutter during a joint operation last month, the government of the Solomon Islands has announced that it is temporarily suspending port calls for all foreign naval vessels of all nationalities.
During a joint fishery patrol in the South Pacific earlier this month, the cutter USCGC Oliver Berry had a scheduled replenishment port call in Honiara. The call would enable its work to help the Solomons police its EEZ. A Coast Guard press officer told Reuters that Solomons officials “did not respond” to a request to enter port, so the cutter diverted about 500 nm from its course to call in Papua New Guinea instead.
The U.S. Department of State followed up with the government of the Solomon Islands to find out what happened, and initially the U.S. Coast Guard expected positive news for future port calls, a spokesperson told the AP. However, Solomons Prime Minister Manesseh Sogavare put a damper on hopes for normalized maritime relations with a statement issued Tuesday.
“We have requested our partners to give us time to review, and put in place our new processes, before sending further requests for military vessels to enter the country,” Sogavare’s office wrote. “Solomon Islands have had unfortunate experiences of foreign naval vessels entering the country’s waters during the course of the year without diplomatic clearance granted, hence would like to avoid such incidents from reoccurring.”
Sogavare told reporters that Oliver Berry and accompanying Royal Navy patrol vessel HMS Spey were turned away because his office did not get their port call request and did not reply in time – prompting the internal review and the temporary suspension of port calls.
On the same day, Sogavare paid a visit to the Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Mercy, which is in the Solomons to provide free medical services. The U.S. Navy vessel was allowed to enter Honiara’s harbor without incident.
Earlier this year, Sogavare’s government signed a security assistance agreement with China, raising serious concerns in Washington and Canberra. The Solomons are strategically located next to the sea lanes (and fiber-optic cables) running to and from Australia’s populous east coast. Sogavare has ruled out a formal Chinese naval base – Western defense planners’ greatest concern – but the deal provides for berthing and reprovisioning for Chinese naval vessels in the Solomons. In return, Sogavare receives Chinese training and equipment for his domestic police force.