Solomon Islands Prime Minister Sogavare has announced a temporary moratorium on visits by foreign naval vessels after turning away a U.S Coast Guard Cutter last week.
Speaking at a ceremony welcoming hospital ship USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) to Honiara, Sogavare said that bureaucratic issues were behind the denial of diplomatic clearance to USCGC Oliver Henry (WPC-1140).
“Unfortunately, by the time the approval was communicated on the evening of 20th August 2022, the Ship’s captain had decided to leave our waters.” Sogavare said in statement.
The port call was routine, said National Security Council spokesman John Kirby during a press conference Tuesday. Oliver Henry planned to stop at Solomon Island to refuel and resupply, but after the U.S. did not receive diplomatic clearance in time, the ship diverted to Papua New Guinea.
“We’re disappointed in this decision,” Kirby said during the briefing. “While the lack of diplomatic clearance for the Oliver Henry was regrettable, however, the United States is pleased that the U.S. Navy ship Mercy – it’s a hospital ship – received diplomatic clearance and was able to take port in Solomon Islands on the 29th.”
While Solomon Islands took time to review its diplomatic clearance process, foreign partners had been asked to postpone upcoming naval visits until further notice, he said.
“To this end 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 said. “Once the new mechanism is in place, we will inform you all. We anticipate the new process to be smoother and timelier.”
In a Tuesday statement, Solomon Islands government said that the new rules would apply to all visiting naval vessels.
“The government has asked all partner countries with plans to conduct naval visits or patrols to put them on hold until a revised national mechanism is in place,” according to a government statement “These will universally apply to all visiting naval vessels.”
U.S. hospital ship USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) has been exempted from the moratorium and is expected to remain in Solomon Islands for several weeks as part of Pacific Partnership 2022.
In May, Solomon Islands signed a secretive security agreement with China. While the details of the deal haven’t been made public, a leaked draft suggested that People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessels would be permitted to make logistics stops in Solomon Islands, raising concerns that Beijing may be planning to establish a permanent overseas presence.
Since the deal was signed, Sogavare has been accused of consolidating power along Chinese lines. Last month the state-owned broadcaster, SBIC, was brought under the direct editorial control of the government, while Sogavare has gone so far as to suggest banning foreign journalists from the country.
Beijing has also deepened security cooperation with the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSPIF), which Chinese police have begun to train.
The U.S Embassy in Canberra told USNI News in a statement that it was “disappointed” that Solomon Islands had turned away USCGC Oliver Henry.
“On Aug. 23, the Government of Solomon Islands failed to provide diplomatic clearance to a U.S. Coast Guard ship for refuelling and provision in Honiara,” according to the statement. “The United States is disappointed that the U.S. Coast Guard ship was not able to make this planned stop in Honiara.”
The U.S Embassy also confirmed that the U.S Government had been officially notified of Solomon Islands’ decision to impose a moratorium on August 29th.
“On Aug. 29, the United States received formal notification from the Government of Solomon Islands regarding a moratorium on all naval visits, pending updates in protocol procedures,” according to the statement. “The U.S. Navy Ship Mercy received diplomatic clearance prior to the moratorium being implemented. We will continue to closely monitor the situation.”
Before being denied permission to dock in Honiara, USCGC Oliver Henry participated in Operation Island Chief alongside a USCG HC-130J. Operation Island Chief is one of four operations conducted annually by the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) which focuses on countering Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing.
A spokesperson for U.S. Coast Guard Forces Micronesia / Sector Guam confirmed to USNI News that, as part of Operation Island Chief, Oliver Henry had been conducting patrols within Solomon Islands’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
As a result of being denied access to Solomon Islands, Oliver Henry diverted to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea (PNG) to refuel and restock, arriving on Aug. 23. The Office of Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare did not respond to questions from USNI News as of this posting.