Solomon Islands suspends all naval visits

The Solomon Islands has suspended visits by all foreign navies, citing the need to review approval processes, the country’s leader said on Tuesday, after a US coast guard was unable to refuel its port.

The move comes amid concerns over the Solomons’ growing ties with China in recent years, moving diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 2019 and signing a security pact with the Asian powerhouse in April.

Western governments fear the islands could provide China with a military foothold in a strategically important part of the world.

In a speech on Tuesday to welcome a US hospital ship to the capital Honiara, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said he was reviewing the process for allowing foreign military ships to dock in the country.

“We have asked our partners to give us time to review and put in place our new processes before sending new requests for military vessels to enter the country,” Sogavare said.

He also denied reports that a US Coast Guard vessel and a UK Navy vessel were not allowed to dock in the country, saying delays in processing their approvals meant both had been denied .

The US Embassy in Canberra confirmed in a statement that it had received official notification of the suspension of naval visits.

“The United States has received official notification from the Solomon Islands government regarding a moratorium on all naval visits, pending updates to protocol procedures,” an embassy spokeswoman said in a statement.

“The United States is disappointed that the U.S. Coast Guard vessel was unable to make this scheduled port visit to Honiara,” the statement said.

“We will continue to monitor the situation closely.”

Sogavare did not specify how long the suspension would last but promised a “smoother and faster” approval process for naval visits after the review.

During the welcoming ceremony for the US hospital ship Mercy, he invited the ship to return during the Pacific Games, which are to be hosted in the country in December next year.

The US Embassy said the Mercy – on a humanitarian mission in the country – received permission to dock before the moratorium was put in place.

Sogavare deepened his South Pacific nation’s ties to China’s autocratic government and proposed changing the constitution to delay scheduled elections.

The four-time leader was twice ousted by votes of no confidence and faced street protests against his decision to change diplomatic recognition.

After widespread rioting in the capital Honiara demanding his ouster late last year, Sogavare signed a secret security pact with Beijing which – according to a leaked draft – allows him to call in Chinese security forces to appease de new troubles.

This has raised concerns in Canberra and Washington about the prospect of establishing a Chinese military base or allowing China to develop dual-use facilities.

Sogavare has repeatedly denied that a foreign base will ever be built in his country.

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs has been contacted for comment.

Last week, Sogavare’s office accused Western media in the Solomons of “spreading anti-Chinese sentiment”.

A statement issued by the office threatened to ban or expel journalists for “disrespectful and degrading” coverage and said some foreign media were attempting “regime change”.

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