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Solomon Islands bans foreign navies from docking, in blow to U.S., U.K.

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 8/31/2022 Andrew Jeong
Ships sit offshore in Honiara, capital of the Solomon Islands, in November 2018. © Mark Schiefelbein/AP Ships sit offshore in Honiara, capital of the Solomon Islands, in November 2018.

The Solomon Islands will bar all foreign military ships from docking at its ports, the country’s government said late Tuesday, more than a week after requests from a U.S. Coast Guard ship and a British naval vessel went unanswered and months after the Pacific nation signed a defense pact with China.

The Solomon Islands acknowledged that it had received the requests from the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Oliver Henry and Britain’s HMS Spey to dock and said the delay in responding demonstrated “the need for the government to review and refine its approval requirements and procedures,” according to a statement. The ships eventually canceled their plans to visit the archipelago.

“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 Solomons said in the statement.

State Department deputy spokesman Vedant Patel expressed disappointment that the Oliver Henry was not provided clearance to enter the harbor. The United States received notification of the Solomon Islands’ moratorium on “all naval visits” Monday, Patel said in a news conference the following day.

The U.S. Embassy in Australia said in a statement that the United States was pleased the Navy hospital ship Mercy had been allowed entry to the Solomon Islands on Monday, before the moratorium, with teams deploying to support hospitals.

Although the Solomons described the episodes as innocuous communication errors, the United States and China are competing for influence over strategic locations in the Indo-Pacific, and the archipelago nation signed a defense pact with China in April, renewing concern in Washington that it is drifting closer to Beijing.

China’s growing reach is transforming a Pacific island chain

“Beijing seeks to weaken U.S. partnerships in the Pacific” that provide the American military advantages it could leverage against China, Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corp., said in testimony to Congress’s U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission this month.

The Solomon Islands is a small country of 700,000 people, but it sits in a strategically important part of the Pacific Ocean, close to Australia, New Zealand and U.S. territories like American Samoa.

China and U.S. vie for influence in the Pacific © The Washington Post China and U.S. vie for influence in the Pacific

The Solomon Islands has inched toward China’s orbit in recent years. In 2019, it cut ties with Taiwan, the U.S.-backed self-governing island that China claims as its own. In March, the Solomons indicated it would sign a security deal with Beijing that could be used to justify a Chinese military presence there. It finalized that deal the next month.

China’s growing clout is alarming some of the Solomons’ neighbors. Papua New Guinea, which lies directly next to the island chain, is negotiating a security treaty with Australia, both countries’ officials told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s radio service this week.

“We want to see Australia be the natural partner of choice for the countries of the Pacific,” Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles said on the “RN Breakfast” show Wednesday.

Papua New Guinea Foreign Minister Justin Tkatchenko, who appeared later on the same show, was blunt about the Solomon Islands’ decision to halt foreign naval visits: “You keep on pushing away a friendly ally, in times of need, they may not be there for you.”

For the United States, the Solomon Islands holds an added symbolic importance. The archipelago includes Guadalcanal, where several thousand American and Allied troops fought against Imperial Japanese forces from 1942 to 1943.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who visited the island this month to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the World War II battle’s beginning, pledged more U.S. support to the Solomons, in remarks aimed at drawing the country closer to Washington. Sherman’s father was one of the American Marines who fought and was wounded in the battle, she said.

“Today we are once again engaged in a different kind of struggle,” she said without mentioning China.

“It is up to us to decide if we want to continue having societies where people are free to speak their minds. If we want to have governments that are transparent and accountable to their people. If we want an international system that is fair and orderly,” she said. “It is a daunting task.”


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