Solomon Islands Accepts US Medical Ship Visit After Rejecting Coast Guard Vessel

Solomon Islands Accepts US Medical Ship Visit After Rejecting Coast Guard Vessel
Military personnel stand aboard the USNS Mercy Navy hospital ship docked in the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro, Calif., on April 15, 2020. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Daniel Y. Teng

The Solomon Islands celebrated the arrival of the U.S. Navy Hospital Ship Mercy on Aug. 30 for its inaugural visit to the island nation, one week after the government rejected a scheduled port call by the U.S. Coast Guard vessel Oliver Henry.

The hospital ship, which is one of the largest vessels to visit the Pacific nation, will provide extensive medical services to civilians of the Solomon Islands with more than 1,000 dental services and 70 surgeries,

The Mercy team also will deploy teams to the Kilu'ufi Hospital in Malaita Province and Gizo Hospital in Western Province.

“On behalf of the government and people of Solomon Islands, I convey to you and through you to the United States Navy and to the government of the United States of America our most sincere appreciation for the visit by the U.S. Navy Hospital Ship Mercy to the Solomon Islands under the Pacific Partnership Program,” Sogavare said on Aug. 30. He also said he hopes the vessel could be dispatched to the island nation on an annual basis.
The visit occurs on the heels of last month’s commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Guadalcanal during World War II.

Rejection of the West

On Aug. 23, the approach of the Oliver Henry was met with silence after requesting permission for a regular port call in the Solomon Islands capital, Honiara. That forced the ship to be diverted to Papua New Guinea.

The Oliver Henry, along with the UK’s HMS Spey, which also was denied entry for a port call, had wrapped up their roles in Operation Island Chief to monitor and prevent illegal fishing activity in the region—a continuing issue with Chinese fishing fleets.

Operation Island Chief was conducted in conjunction with members of the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency, including Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji.

The Solomon Islands government claimed that the radio silence toward the crew of the Oliver Henry was because “appropriate information” hadn’t been sent to the prime minister’s office in time and that by the time the approval was granted, the ship had already left Solomon Islands waters.

Meanwhile, the approval process for the Spey was supposedly “aborted” after the prime minister’s office received notification from the British High Commission that they were no longer seeking permission for the vessel to dock.

Sogavare said the incidents proved the need for “new processes” before the government could deal with future requests.

“Once the new mechanism is in place, we will inform you all,” Sogavare said. “We anticipate the new process to be smoother and timelier.”

The Solomon Islands government also claimed that it previously had “unfortunate” experiences with foreign naval vessels in its waters and was working to avoid similar incidents. It also stated that reports that the government is under the influence of Beijing were “misinformation.”

In response, Solomon Islands opposition leader Matthew Wale called the incidents a joke.

“‘Friends to all, enemies to none’ is clearly a joke. The prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, clearly treats the U.S. and its allies as hostile nations. All our friends must be treated equally,” he said in comments obtained by Radio New Zealand.

South Pacific expert Cleo Paskal said fellow Pacific leaders are watching how the United States and its allies deal with Sogavare and the situation in the Solomon Islands.

The Pacific leader has deepened ties with China in recent months, including signing off on a contentious security pact with Beijing that will allow troops, weapons, and naval ships to be stationed in the country.

“[Dissidents and the political opposition] are on the front line of the global fight between systems, and are now fully exposed to China via Beijing’s proxy, Sogavare,” Paskal wrote on LinkedIn. “If they are taken off the field—in one way or another—fighting back from within becomes close to impossible, and fighting from the outside becomes exponentially more dangerous and costly.

“This is heading to Zimbabwe under Mugabe territory. And it has the potential to be contagious and move to countries like Vanuatu and Kiribati, that are already heading in the same direction.”