The Solomon Islands have sparked fresh fears of China’s growing influence after it denied docking permission to two international warships enforcing its territorial rights.
British patrol vessel HMS Spey and US coastguard Oliver Henry have been forced to divert to other ports after taking part in a 10-day mission to 15 countries to deter illegal fishing in the region.
The move immediately raised suspicion among international affairs analysts after the Solomon Islands and China signed a controversial security deal earlier this year.
Fears over Beijing’s growing influence in the South Pacific had prompted Canberra, Wellington and Washington to urge Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare not to sign the pact. A draft document leaked in March appears to allow China to station its warships there and deploy troops to protect its investments.
On Tuesday, Sogavare announced that it had imposed a moratorium on accepting all international naval visits. He was speaking at a welcome ceremony for the giant US Navy hospital ship USS Mercy.
He accused the patrol vessels of failing to provide the necessary documents in time for his office to grant approval.
“The delay in these approvals demonstrates the need for the government to review and refine its requirements and approval procedures for visiting military vessels in the Solomon Islands,” Mr Sogavare said. “To that end, 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.”
The new process would apply to all visiting warships, he added.
Philip Citowicki, another Pacific Forum non-resident, said the move “parts an alarming trend”.
But the national executive director of the Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA), Dr Bryce Wakefield, said it was too early to draw a conclusion.
“It’s tempting to frame everything the Solomon Islands government is doing at the moment in light of its security deal with Beijing,” he told news.com.au. “But it’s entirely possible that the Sogavare government wants to improve its processes precisely because it has received increased international attention because of its security deal with China.”
The international naval exercise Operation Island Chief is one of four annual patrols designed to enforce the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) among the dispersed island states of the South Pacific.
The ability of these small nations to police their own vast exclusive economic zones is limited, prompting foreign fishing fleets to plunder their rich fisheries. And the Solomon Islands – a country of 992 islands and 700,000 citizens – are strategically located at the crossroads of the North and South Pacific.
Although Mr Sogavare refused permission to dock the returning British and US patrol ships, he did so only after he cleared the USS Mercy to begin its medical mission.
“The United States is delighted that the United States Navy ship Mercy then arrived in Honiara on August 29 to begin its two-week humanitarian mission, with Australian and Japanese personnel,” an embassy spokesperson said. American in Canberra.
But Mr Sogavare said the USS Mercy would be the last naval vessel to dock in Honiara due to “unfortunate experiences of foreign warships entering the country’s waters during the year without diplomatic clearance being granted”.
He did not provide any examples or name the offenders.
But the issue of Chinese warships potentially using Solomon Islands facilities has become a cause of serious tension between Honiara, Canberra and Washington.
“The broad nature of the security agreement leaves the door open for the deployment of PRC (People’s Republic of China) military forces to the Solomon Islands,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said in April. The pact “could increase destabilization within the Solomon Islands and set a worrying precedent for the wider Pacific Islands region,” he added.
On Tuesday, United States National Security Council spokesman John Kirby blasted Beijing again.
“Clearly, we have seen the Chinese intimidate and coerce nations across the Indo-Pacific into doing their bidding and serving what they believe to be their selfish national security interests, rather than the broader interests of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” he said. “It’s unfortunate. We call it when we see it.
Great Power Competition
The ban on naval visits comes just over a week after Sogavare threatened to expel Western media for “disrespectful and demeaning” reporting. He accused the journalists of trying to “bring about regime change”.
But Mr Citowicki told news.com.au the warship ban follows a pattern of behavior.
“It’s further evidence of Prime Minister Sogavare’s turn towards authoritarian rule,” he says, adding that it’s not just about China establishing a military foothold in the region, but also exporting from its authoritarian model to emerging democracies.
“Beyond the security agreement between the Solomon Islands and China, we have also witnessed attempts to delay elections and the opaque allocation of Chinese funds to pro-government politicians.”
And Mr Sogavare’s comments that he wants to boost his own naval capability “raise more questions than answers”.
“What is worrying is that it is not a stretch to envisage a scenario where Beijing could try to negotiate joint patrols in the exclusive economic zones of the Solomon Islands,” he explains.
USCGS Oliver Henry was forced to divert to Papua New Guinea for refueling and resupply.
The Royal Navy declined to comment, except to say that HMS Spey had “withdrawn” its visit request and that such changes were “standard practice”.
“To definitively measure the impact of Chinese influence here is impossible,” says Citowicki. “However, I would be hesitant to say that the latest moves are just Solomon Islands posturing based on the litany of other deals and agreements between Honiara and Beijing recently.”
He adds that such measures have likely raised eyebrows in other Pacific island countries, not just Australia and New Zealand.
“We have also seen Papua New Guinea Foreign Minister Justin Tkatchenko reveal his intention to negotiate a security agreement with Australia and possibly New Zealand as well. This offers a behind-the-scenes look at possible concerns in PNG over the Solomon Islands-China security deal.
But apparent confusion within the Solomon Islands government over the application and extent of the naval ban has further muddied the waters.
“It’s best to wait and see how permanent this ban is and whether processes are actually improved afterwards before drawing any conclusions that this is the result of Chinese influence in Honiara,” the official said. Dr Wakefield.
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel