BANGKOK (AP) — A U.S. Coast Guard cutter conducting patrols as part of an international mission to prevent illegal fishing was recently unable to obtain permission for a planned port in the Solomon Islands, an incident that comes amid growing concerns about Chinese influence in the Pacific nation.
The cutter Oliver Henry was participating in Operation Island Chief monitoring fishing activities in the Pacific, which ended Friday, when it attempted to make a scheduled stop at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands to resupply and resupply, the Coast Guard office in Honolulu said. .
There was no response from the Solomon Islands government for diplomatic permission for the vessel to stop there, however, so the Oliver Henry was diverted to Papua New Guinea, the Coast Guard said.
When the stop in the Solomon Islands was scheduled was not disclosed, but the Coast Guard said the Oliver Henry arrived in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, on Tuesday “after patrolling parts of the Coral Sea and Solomon Islands.”
Britain’s Royal Navy did not directly comment on reports that HMS Spey, which also took part in Operation Island Chief, was also denied port access in the Solomon Islands.
“Ships’ programs are under constant review and it is routine practice for them to change,” the Royal Navy said in an emailed statement.
“For reasons of operational security we do not discuss details. The Royal Navy looks forward to visiting the Solomon Islands at a later date.”
During Operation Island Chief, the US, Australia, Britain and New Zealand provided support through air and surface surveillance for the Pacific island nations participating in the operation, including the Solomon Islands.
China is aggressively seeking to expand its presence and influence in the Pacific, and Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has alarmed some neighbors, the US and others after signing a new security pact with China.
The pact has raised fears of a Chinese naval base 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) off Australia’s northeast coast. A Chinese military presence in the Solomon Islands would put it not only on the doorstep of Australia and New Zealand, but also in close proximity to Guam, the US territory that hosts major military bases.
Both the Solomon Islands and China have denied that their pact will lead to a Chinese military base in the South Pacific.
Sogavare also raised eyebrows earlier in August when he skipped a memorial ceremony on the anniversary of the Battle of Guadalcanal, a key World War II battle in which American and other allied forces wrested control of the islands from Imperial Japan.
US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, whose father was wounded during the Guadalcanal campaign and attended the memorial service, said Sogaware “missed an important opportunity” by failing to attend.
US Sen. Marsha Blackburn met with Sogavare in the Solomon Islands on Wednesday, but it was unclear if she raised the issue of the Coast Guard’s denial of a port visit.
The Tennessee Republican said in a statement on her website that her visit to the Solomon Islands as well as Fiji and Papua New Guinea “was an important step in demonstrating America’s commitment to the region and expanding our strategic relationship.” .
The Coast Guard, in the statement from Honolulu, said it respects the sovereignty of its foreign partners and looks forward to future engagement with the Solomon Islands.
Coast Guard Lt. Christine Kamm told the Stars and Stripes newspaper that the US State Department had been in contact with the Solomon Islands government after the port visit was denied, and that they “expect all future permits to be provided to US vessels”. .
Associated Press writer Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report.
David Rising, The Associated Press