By Kirsty Needham
SYDNEY (Reuters) -The Solomon Islands has suspended entry into its waters for foreign navy ships pending adoption of a new process for approval of port visits, the prime minister's office said on Tuesday, in a bid to better police its exclusive economic zones.
The suspension of entry followed incidents last week when a U.S. Coast Guard vessel, the Oliver Henry, and a Royal Navy vessel, HMS Spey, were unable to make port calls because the government did not respond to requests to refuel and provision.
"We have requested our partners to give us time to review, and put in place our new processes, before sending further requests for military vessels to enter the country," Prime Minister Manesseh Sogavare said in a statement.
"These will universally apply to all visiting naval vessels," he said in a statement emailed to Reuters.
Sogavare added that he wanted to build national capacity to police the Pacific island nation's exclusive economic zones.
The Solomon Islands have had "unfortunate experiences of foreign naval vessels entering the country's waters during the course of the year without diplomatic clearance granted", the statement said, without naming the countries.
The suspension of naval ship visits will be lifted when a new process is in place.
In a speech on Tuesday afternoon to welcome the visiting U.S. hospital ship Mercy, Sogavare said the delay over the Oliver Henry was because information had not been sent to his office on time.
He also confirmed delays in approving entry for the British navy ship Spey, which cancelled its planned port call.
Earlier, the U.S. embassy in the Australian capital said the Solomon Islands had notified it of a moratorium on navy vessels entering its ports.
"On Aug. 29, the United States received formal notification from the government of Solomon Islands regarding a moratorium on all naval visits, pending updates in protocol procedures," the embassy said in a statement.
The Mercy had arrived before the moratorium, the embassy said, adding that it was monitoring the situation.
The Solomon Islands has had a tense relationship with the United States and its allies since striking a security pact with China this year.
Beijing and Honiara have said there will be no Chinese military base, although a leaked draft refers to Chinese naval ships replenishing in the strategically located archipelago.
The Oliver Henry and HMS Spey were on patrol for illegal fishing in the South Pacific for a regional fisheries agency at the time they sought entry to refuel at Honiara, the Solomons' capital.
The United States announced plans in July to battle illegal fishing in the Pacific, as part of increased U.S. engagement with the region to counter China's growing influence.
On Monday, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said it was regrettable that "we've seen the Chinese try to bully and coerce nations throughout the Indo-Pacific to do their bidding and to serve what they believe their selfish national security interests are, rather than the broader interests of a free and open Indo-Pacific".
An Australian defence spokesman said 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.
A Royal Navy spokesperson said it "looks forward to visiting the Solomon Islands at a later date".
(Reporting by Kirsty Needham in Sydney and Michael Martina in Washington; Editing by Himani Sarkar and Clarence Fernandez)