Solomons slap ‘moratorium’ on naval vessel visits; PM says USCG ship was OKd for entry, but…

USNS Mercy (T-AH 19) Arrives in Palau During Pacific Partnership 2022

Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Mercy (T-AH 19) sits at anchor upon its arrival off the coast of Koror, Palau during Pacific Partnership 2022. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Brandie Nuzzi)

SYDNEY: The increasingly unpredictable government of the Solomon Islands has issued what it called a “moratorium” on the visits of all naval ships after a US Coast Guard vessel and a British naval ship failed to receive timely diplomatic approval for recent port calls, forcing them to divert to Papua New Guinea.

“The Prime Minister’s Office sought and received the required information on 20th August 2022. Approval was granted for the US Coast Guard Cutter Oliver Henry to enter the country and participate in the FFA operation Island Chief event on 20th August 2022,” according to an official statement on the government’s main website, referring to the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency’s (FFA) Operation Island Chief.

“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 a statement.

In a wonderful bit of logic, the president argued that the “delay” in getting a visit approved — even though it was requested and permission to enter was given on the same day, according to the government — means the Solomons must “review and refine its approval requirements and procedures for visiting military vessels to Solomon Islands.”

More broadly the government claims that the “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.”

“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,” Sogavare said in the statement.

The US embassy in Canberra, which helps manage communications with the Solomons and other Pacific islands, issued a statement today, saying that on “August 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.” The statement notes that the Coast Guard ship is in the region as part of the FFA exercise, which works with regional countries to “effectively and efficiently protect their national interests; combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing; strengthen maritime governance on the high seas; and model professional maritime behavior to partners and competitors.”

The embassy statement, while expressing appreciation that the USNS Mercy was allowed to call at the Solomon capital of Honoria, said, “It is disappointing that the USCGC Oliver Henry was not provided diplomatic clearance in support of its operation with the FFA.”

The new directive from Sogavare came at an odd moment as well, during a ceremony welcoming the Mercy, which will stay in port at the island from today through Sept. 9. “It is a fitting demonstration of our strengthening cooperation with the visit coming shortly after the commemoration of the 80th Anniversary of the Battle of Guadalcanal earlier this month,” Sogavare said of the occasion.

Why did the Mercy get permission while the Oliver Henry and a British ship, HMS Spey, did not — at least in a timely fashion? The US Embassy in Canberra statement says that the Mercy “received diplomatic clearance prior to the moratorium being implemented. We will continue to closely monitor the situation.”

The British have said very little about the situation. The Solomons prime minister’s statement said the Spey’s “approval process to enter Solomon Islands was aborted when the Prime Minister’s Office received notification from the British High Commission in Honoria, that they were no longer seeking approval for HMAS Spey to enter the country.” (Note that the Solomons government is so used to dealing with Australia that they designated the Spey an Australian ship, with HMAS, in both their statement and in the caption for a photo of the ship.)

While no one is mentioning China, suspicions are rife that there is some connection between Sogavare’s increasingly close relations with China and the apparent miscommunications that led to these two ships not calling at Honoria. His government signed a secret security pact with China earlier this year.

Sogavare’s 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. These will universally apply to all visiting naval vessels,” the statement says. Ironically, the Mercy is, of course, a US naval ship. The Coast Guard ship is not a US Navy vessel, although the Coast Guard can be militarized in wartime. The Mercy doesn’t have weapons and provides a huge range of medical and dental care, often hard to find on remote Pacific islands. Perhaps that’s the difference.

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