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South Pacific makes waves for US ships

Increased antinuclear militancy on the part of some independent nations in the South Pacific region has defense implications for the United States. The nuclear issue has mushroomed particularly in the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

The Solomon Islands says it will no longer allow a warship to call at its port or transit its waters unless the government owning the vessel declares in writing that the ship is neither nuclear powered nor nuclear armed. It is longstanding US policy that no details about the nuclear capability of any vessel are divulged, even to allies.

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The antinuclear rule, announced in mid-February, followed an incident concerning the US frigate Bronstein. The US did not disclose details about the ship's nuclear capability, though the Bronstein is accepted as being conventionally powered and armed. When the ship tried to visit the capital city of Honiara last month, trade union workers refused to provide services for the vessel.

Though the Solomon Islands government, without a navy, has no way of enforcing its decision, regional analysts suggest the US is unlikely to defy the decision. To send naval ships through the islands' extensive waters, these analysts say, would make Washington appear insensitive toward a small but sovereign nation.

Meanwhile, neighboring Vanuatu (formerly New Hebrides) is believed to be contemplating a similar decision.

The US would be the country most affected if the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu close their waters to foreign naval vessels which refuse to give nuclear information. The ships would need to make a detour in the Pacific as they sail to or from Australia's eastern seaboard.

Antinuclear sentiment among surrounding islands, such as Palau and other Micronesian territories, is more widely known. In Australia and New Zealand, demonstrators have protested nuclear ships docking at their ports. The two governments are partners with the US in the ANZUS defense treaty and support good-will visits by US ships, even if they have nuclear capabilities.

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