Solomon Islands PM makes 'deeply unsettling' move after China deal

·News Editor
·4-min read

The Solomon Islands has suspended all visits from the US Navy, the American embassy in Canberra says, heightening concerns over the growing influence of Beijing in the region.

It comes a week after a US coast guard vessel was blocked from refuelling in the Solomons capital.

Australian officials were concerned when the Solomon Island signed a security pact with China earlier this year and the latest move by the island nation has been described as "deeply unsettling".

"It is highly unusual," International Security and Intelligence Studies Professor John Blaxland told Yahoo News Australia.

Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands Manasseh Sogavare pictured at the UN.
Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands Manasseh Sogavare has enacted a 'deeply unsettling' move. Source: Reuters

"Particularly because the Australian navy and the US navy have been working directly with the needs of the Solomon Islands."

According to a Tuesday statement put out by the office of Solomon Islands prime minister Manasseh Sogavare, the country has suspended entry into its waters for foreign navy ships pending adoption of a new process for approval of port visits.

It comes just days after a US coast guard and a Navy vessel were unable to make port calls because the government did not respond to requests to refuel and provision.

Prof Blaxland said it is becoming "increasingly difficult" to give Mr Sogavare the benefit of the doubt.

"It is a worrying sign that Sogavare seems to be preparing the way for a more assertive position that is about controlling the situation for his own political benefit," he said.

"I am deeply skeptical of his motives and his plans – and they seem be about remaining in power come hell or high water."

Mr Sogavare alongside Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during a signing ceremony.
Mr Sogavare alongside Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during a signing ceremony. Source: Reuters

It is not clear if the moratorium applies to Chinese vessels, Prof Blaxland said, although the statement from Mr Sogavare said it will "universally apply to all visiting naval vessels".

The PM's statement declared the government wanted to build national capacity to police the Pacific island nation's exclusive economic zones.

Prof Blaxland said evidence is mounting that Mr Sogavare could be operating from a "conspiratorial" position where he wants to keep foreign powers like the US at bay.

"What this is doing is basically sending a signal that he doesn’t want anyone to be in a position to interfere" with his control of the country, he said.

The Solomon Islands has risen to global prominence with China's growing influence. Source: AFP
The Solomon Islands has risen to global prominence with China's growing influence. Source: AFP

On Tuesday, however, the US Navy Hospital Ship Mercy was welcomed by the Solomon Islands.

Prominent China critic Professor Anne-Marie Brady, from the University of Canterbury, posited it could be a "new normal" for Australia and its closest allies.

"Five Eyes military vessels excluded from Solomon Island waters," she tweeted. "Entry on a case by case basis."

Australian defence minister won't be drawn on moratorium

Australia's deputy prime minister and defence minister, Richard Marles, was at pains to avoid questions posed to him about the moratorium on ABC radio on Wednesday morning.

He would not say if he was worried about the move, nor would he comment on whether it applied to Australian vessels.

"We don’t have a vessel that is about to go to the Solomon Islands," he said.

When pressed about the significance of the decision, Mr Marles repeatedly danced around the question and spoke about the Labor government's commitment to the relationship.

"Ultimately it is a matter for the Solomons Islands. We respect that and we understand that," he said.

"We really believe if Australia puts in the work and builds our relationship there and makes clear to the Solomon Islands that we are actually committed to their development, then we will be the partner of choice," he said.

Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese meets with Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare on sidelines of the Pacific Islands Forum, in Suva, Fiji July 13, 2022. Joe Armao/Pool via REUTERS
Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese meets with Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare in July this year. Source: Reuters

"We are completely committed to building that relationship. We are a friend and we want to work with them on their development."

An Australian defence spokesman told Reuters that diplomatic clearances for visiting foreign vessels was a matter for the government of the Solomon Islands.

"Australia continues to work with Solomon Islands to meet its security priorities and the region’s collective maritime security objectives," the spokesperson said.

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