The Solomon Islands has suspended entry into its waters for foreign navy ships pending adoption of a new process for approval of port visits, the Prime Minister’s office said on Tuesday, in a bid to better police its exclusive economic zones.
The step follows an incident last week when a United States Coast Guard cutter, the Oliver Henry, was unable to make a routine port call because the government did not respond to a request for it to refuel and provision.
“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,” Prime Minister Manesseh Sogavare said in a statement.
“These will universally apply to all visiting naval vessels,” he said in the statement his office emailed to Reuters.
Sogavare added that he wanted to build national capacity to police the Pacific island nation’s exclusive economic zones.
In a speech on Tuesday afternoon to welcome the visiting US Navy hospital ship USNS Mercy, Sogavare said last week’s delay over the Oliver Henry was because the information had not been sent to his office on time.
He also confirmed delays in approving entry for the British navy ship HMS Spey, which also aborted its planned port call, the statement said.
As a result of the two incidents, the Solomon Islands is reviewing the approval procedures, it said.
Earlier, the US Embassy in Canberra, the Australian capital, had said the Solomon Islands had notified it of a moratorium on navy vessels entering its ports.
“On Aug. 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 embassy said in a statement.
The Mercy had arrived before the moratorium, the embassy said, adding that it was monitoring the situation.
The Solomon Islands has had a tense relationship with the US and its allies since striking a security pact with China this year.
The Oliver Henry was on patrol for illegal fishing in the South Pacific for a regional fisheries agency at the time it sought entry to refuel at Honiara, the Solomons’ capital.
On Monday, a US State Department spokesperson called the lack of clearance for the Oliver Henry “regrettable,” saying the US was pleased the Mercy had received clearance.
Separately, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said it was regrettable that “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.”