HMAS Armidale sails into the Port of Honiara in 2021. The Solomon Islands has suspended entry to foreign vessels after criticism for denying port to US and UK ships. Picture: Getty
By Justin Vallejo
The Solomon Islands lifted a ban on Aussie naval ships entering their waters, ahead of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s trip to Australia.
The island nation blocked all foreign naval vessels from its ports after coming under scrutiny for denying entry to ships from the United States and the United Kingdom.
But on Monday Mr Sogavare told his own parliament that Australian, New Zealand and Fijian military vessels deployed as part of the Solomon Islands International Assistance Force would be allowed to dock at the island nation’s ports, according to The Australian.
Foreign military vessels responding to distress calls would also be exempt, he added.
Mr Sogavare is visiting Australia at the invitation of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.
US officials and analysts last week raised concerns the denial of entry to two AUKUS partners signalled a further move toward China following leaks that Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare signed a secret security agreement with Xi Jinping’s Communist Party.
US Coast Guard vessel Oliver Henry and the British navy patrol boat HMS Spey were both refused entry in the past week while taking part in Operation Island Chief, which patrols for illegal fishing around Australia, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.
Mr Sogavare said entry to all foreign vessels would be blocked from entering the Solomon Islands pending an overhaul of its approval processes.
Former US State Department official Charles Edel, the Australia chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an interview that indications suggest Mr Sogavare is increasingly looking to move the Solomon Islands further away from Australia and closer to China.
“Given 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 co-operate with the US and Australia, this decision reflects a concerning trend,” he said.
Mr Sogavare cast the concern over his government’s refusal to welcome the US and UK naval vessels as “misinformation”, saying in a statement the refusal was the fault of the US Coast Guard Cutter Oliver Henry not sending its request to his office in time.
“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 at a ceremony to welcome the US Hospital Ship, USNS Mercy.
He added that the British High Command, meanwhile, notified the Prime Minister’s Office that the HMAS Spey withdrew its application to enter the country following the delay in approval, demonstrating the need for a review of its processes.
“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,” Mr Sogavare said.
Photo: Chinese Premier Li Keqiang holds a welcoming ceremony for Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare. Picture: Getty Images
“Once the new mechanism is in place, we will inform you all. We anticipate the new process to be smoother and timelier.”
The US’s National Security Council spokesman, John Kirby, said that the White House was “disappointed” by the “regrettable” decision of the Solomon Islands to refuse entry to his ships, noting that the Oliver Henry was ultimately diverted to Papua New Guinea.
“Clearly we’ve seen the Chinese try to bully and coerce nations throughout the Indo-Pacific to do their bidding and to serve what they believe their selfish national security interests are rather than the broader interests of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Mr Kirby said.