Kiribati quits key Pacific island bloc

SUVA: Kiribati has quit the premier bloc of Pacific island nations, fracturing the group just as its leaders launch a summit to grapple with rising seas and China’s security ambitions in the region.

The central Pacific nation of 120,000 people said it had taken “the sovereign decision” to withdraw from the 51-year-old, Fiji-based Pacific Islands Forum “with immediate effect”.

In a Jul 9 letter obtained by AFP, Kiribati President Taneti Maamau cited the forum’s failure to honour a “gentlemen’s agreement” to appoint a Micronesian candidate to head the secretariat.

The spat had led to a threat by Micronesian countries to quit the bloc but it was reportedly patched up with a deal last month to rotate the top job, set to be discussed at this week’s summit.

The Kiribati leader cited his country’s national day celebrations on Jul 12 as another reason for not attending the summit.

Leaders from more than a dozen forum nations are meeting in Fiji’s capital Suva from Jul 12 to Jul 14 at a pivotal time when China is seeking to expand its diplomatic and security engagements in the region.

“Your meeting today is taking place in a rapidly evolving regional and international context,” Secretary General Henry Puna told leaders at a related event Monday (Jul 11).

“The development and security challenges that we face today, from COVID-19 to climate change and ocean pollution highlight the critical importance of regional and multilateral cooperation.”

Beijing’s increasing influence in the region – notably a secretive security pact with Solomon Islands in April – has fed concern in the United States and its allies about its intentions.

Regional powers Australia and New Zealand – both members of the Pacific Island Forum – have stressed the bloc’s importance in deciding the security strategy of the region.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Kiribati during a whistle-stop tour of the Pacific in May, signing 10 agreements in areas such as the climate and the economy, but not security.

Low-lying Kiribati, at risk of sinking from rising seas in a changing climate, has a strategic position 3,000km southwest of Hawaii with one of the largest exclusive economic zones in the world.