BANGKOK (Associated Press) – A US Coast Guard cutter patrolling as part of an international mission to prevent illegal fishing has been unable to obtain permission to conduct a scheduled port visit in the Solomon Islands, an incident that comes amid growing concerns about Chinese influence over the Pacific nation.
The Honolulu Coast Guard office said Cutter Oliver Henry was participating in Operation Chief Pacific Fishing Activities Monitor, which ended Friday, when it sought a scheduled stop in Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, for refueling and resupply. .
The Coast Guard said there was no response from the Solomon Islands government to obtain diplomatic permission for the ship to stop there, so Oliver Henry turned to Papua New Guinea.
When the stop in the Solomon Islands was due, it was not disclosed, but the Coast Guard said Oliver Henry arrived in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, on Tuesday “after patrolling parts of the Coral Sea and the Solomon Islands.”
The British Royal Navy has not commented directly on reports that the ship HMS Spey, which is also involved in Operation Chief Island, has also been denied access to a port in the Solomon Islands.
“Ship programs are under constant review, and it is routine practice to change,” the Royal Navy said in an emailed statement.
For operational security reasons, we do not discuss details. The Royal Navy looks forward to visiting the Solomon Islands at a later date.”
During Operation Island Head, the United States, Australia, Britain and New Zealand provided support with air and surface surveillance of the Pacific island nations involved in the operation, including the Solomon Islands.
China is resolutely trying to expand its presence and influence in the Pacific, and the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, Manasseh Sogavari, alarmed some neighbors, the United States and others after he signed a new security agreement with China.
The agreement raised fears that a Chinese naval base would be established 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) from the northeastern coast of Australia. The Chinese military presence in the Solomon Islands would not only put them on the doorstep of Australia and New Zealand, but also very close to Guam, the US territory that hosts major military bases.
Both the Solomon Islands and China denied that their agreement would lead to a Chinese military foothold in the South Pacific.
Sugavari also raised eyebrows earlier in August when he skipped a memorial service marking the Battle of Guadalcanal, a major World War II battle in which US and other allied forces wrested control of the islands from the Japanese Empire.
US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, whose father was injured during the Guadalcanal campaign and attended the memorial, said Sugavari had “missed an important opportunity” by not attending.
US Senator Marsha Blackburn met with Sugavari in the Solomon Islands on Wednesday but it was not clear if she had raised the issue of the Coast Guard’s refusal at the port.
The Republican activist from Tennessee 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 relationships.”
The Coast Guard, in a statement from Honolulu, said it respects the sovereignty of its foreign partners and looks forward to future engagement with the Solomon Islands.
Coast Guard Lieutenant Kristen Kamm told Stars and Stripes that the US State Department has been in contact with the Solomon Islands government after refusing to contact the port and that they “expect all future permits to be provided to US vessels.”
Associated Press writer Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report.