A snap ban on foreign military vessels docking in Solomon Islands is poised to be lifted, its leader told parliament Monday. The controversial issue could see the South Pacific nation become a pawn in a strategic tug-of-war between China and the United States. France, which shares a maritime border between New Caledonia and the Solomons, is keeping a close eye on the situation.
Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said a review of the makeshift ban was "progressing very well. We do not expect the temporary moratorium to last for a long time".
Two weeks ago, US Coast Guard ship Oliver Henry opted to turn away from Honiara, capital of the Solomons, after a lengthy delay to their request to dock.
According to Defense Post, the Solomons government “did not respond to the US government’s request for diplomatic clearance for the vessel to refuel and provision” in the capital city.
The HMS Spey, a British naval patrol vessel, also left Solomons waters before getting a late answer to their docking request.
Sogavare's office then confirmed a snap ban on military vessels from "all countries" while naval approval processes were reviewed.
He said the "temporary" ban was because the Pacific nation had seen "a sudden increase" in requests for visits by military vessels.
'Secretive' China pact
Sogavare has deepened his South Pacific nation's ties with China, and faced street protests against his decision to switch diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.
After widespread rioting in Honiara and demands for his ouster last year, his government signed a secretive defence pact with Beijing that, according to a leaked draft, allows him to call in Chinese security forces to quell unrest.
The draft security cooperation agreement between China and Solomon Islands has been linked on social media and raises a lot of questions (and concerns). (photos of agreement in this and below tweet) 1/6 pic.twitter.com/nnpnJJQC7r— Dr Anna Powles (@AnnaPowles) March 24, 2022
Last month, Sogavare's office accused Western media organisations in the Solomons of "spreading anti-China sentiment".
A statement issued by the office threatened to ban or deport reporters for "disrespectful and demeaning" coverage and said some foreign media were trying to "engineer regime change".
The United States. Britain and France are among countries concerned that the new security pact with Beijing could lead to a Chinese naval base being constructed less than 2,000 kilometres off Australia’s northeast coast.
According to Reuters, the US State Department declined to comment, but a spokesperson for Senator Marsha Blackburn, who last week visited Sogavare, said it was "extremely concerning that Solomon Islands are blocking military vessels from their waters".
Beijing denies any ill-intent. The Global Times, a propaganda outlet controlled by China's Communist Party, quoted Chen Hong, director of the Australian Studies Centre at East China Normal University as saying that "the US hyping of such an event not only shows disrespect for the Solomon Islands as an independent country, it also reveals Washington's petty mentality of upgrading such small events into a geopolitical tussle, and deep insecurity over its ties with the Pacific nation."
Meanwhile, the American and British ships that were refused entry in Solomon territory had been taking part in Operation Island Chief, which monitors fishing in the region.
According to a statement by the Pacfic Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA,) Operation Island Chief ended on 26 August and was aimed at "surveillance operation covering 18.2 million square kilometres."
According to the statement, "Pacific QUAD partners, Australia, New Zealand and the United States, provided support through aerial and surface surveillance" for the operation.
This may have irked Beijing and contributed to tensions with Washington: the QUAD (Quadrilateral Dialogue) is a loose alliance between Washington, Australia, the US and India to reign in China's growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region.
France, the UK and other US allies occasionally take part in QUAD exercises as well.