South Pacific Nation Pausing Naval Port Visits After U.S. Coast Guard Ship Blocked

South Pacific Nation Pausing Naval Port Visits After U.S. Coast Guard Ship Blocked

A strategically located South Pacific nation has announced a temporary ban on all U.S. and foreign military ships docking in its ports after a U.S. Coast Guard ship was denied entry last week.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare announced this week that he was implementing a moratorium on foreign military forces docking at its ports. 

The announcement comes after the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Oliver Henry was looking to refuel at the Solomon Islands after conducting fishing patrols in the Pacific, but the boat was not cleared to dock at Guadalcanal. A British navy vessel that was part of the same patrol was also denied approval.

The Oliver Henry ended up sailing to nearby Papua New Guinea to refuel before heading back to Hawaii.

“We’re disappointed in this decision,” said National Security Council spokesman John Kirby at a press 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.”

Sogavare pinned the denial of entry on miscommunication and bureaucratic delays and announced that he would re-examine the process for allowing military vessels to enter the ports. 

“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. Once the new mechanism is in place, we will inform you all. We anticipate the new process to be smoother and timelier,” the prime minister said.

The move has some in the U.S. worried that it could signal a pivot by the island nation away from friendly relations with America and closer to China, with which it signed a controversial security pact earlier this year. Former State Department official Charles Edel told The New York Times that the move could indicate increasing ties to the communist nation. The Solomon Islands are located near key American allies in the Pacific, like Australia and New Zealand. 

“[G]iven the larger context of Solomon Islands Prime Minister Sogavare’s recent signing of a secretive security agreement with China, his acceptance of a bid from Huawei to build cell towers in the Solomon Islands and his increasing reluctance to cooperate with the U.S. and Australia, this decision reflects a concerning trend,” Edel said. 

The Solomon Islands’ decision to temporarily ban foreign military vessels from docking at its ports also follows Sen. Marsha Blackburn’s visit to the South Pacific. The Tennessee Republican met with leaders from the Solomons, Papua New Guinea, and Fiji in the hope of strengthening U.S. ties to the island nations. 

Blackburn also lashed out at China in a statement following the trip. 

“The Indo-Pacific Region is the next frontier for the New Axis of Evil,” she said. “We must stand against the Chinese Communist Party. In Washington, I’ve introduced legislation to permanently expand our diplomatic footprint in the area.”