Kiribati says it will rejoin Pacific islands diplomatic grouping

Kiribati’s exit from the Pacific Islands Forum last year had suggested it might tighten ties with China.
Stephen Wright for BenarNews
2023.01.30
Wellington
Kiribati says it will rejoin Pacific islands diplomatic grouping Kiribati’s President Taneti Maamau (center, right) and Fiji’s Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka (center, left) look on during a ceremony for Rabuka’s official visit to Kiribati in Tarawa, Kiribati on Jan. 20, 2023.
Handout/Kiribati Government.

Kiribati said it will rejoin a diplomatic grouping of Pacific Island countries this year, potentially ending a rift that raised questions about the relevance of the Pacific Islands Forum at a time of increased U.S.-China rivalry in the region.

Kiribati’s government withdrew from the regional forum in mid-2022, partly because it and four other Micronesian nations had been slighted by the organization’s secretary-general role not going to one of their countries for more than two decades.  

The office of Kiribati’s president, Taneti Maamau, said on Monday that “Kiribati has formally reinstated its positive endorsement to rejoin the Pacific Islands Forum this year.”  

Kiribati, a chain of coral atolls that’s among the poorest nations in the Pacific, switched its diplomatic recognition to China from Taiwan in 2019. Its exit from the regional organization suggested it might further tighten relations with Beijing. 

Kiribati’s opposition leader reportedly alleged last year that the decision to leave the Pacific Islands Forum was a result of Beijing’s influence. Maamau, in an October 2022 interview with Chinese state media, said he was amazed by China’s economic development and praised Beijing’s responsiveness to Kiribati’s development needs.

The island country controls a vast exclusive economic zone in the Pacific Ocean including a 408,250 square kilometer (approximately 157,600 square miles) marine reserve known as the Phoenix Islands Protected Area.

Fiji’s recently-elected prime minister, Sitiveni Rabuka, who is also the chairman of the Pacific Islands Forum, visited Kiribati earlier this month in an effort to mend relations with Maamau.

The decision to rejoin the Pacific forum “comes following a fruitful, positive, and successful bilateral meeting” between Maamau and Rabuka, Kiribati’s statement posted on Facebook said. 

“During the state visit, the Prime Minister [of Fiji] also formally delivered an apology by showcasing the traditional Fijian ceremony seeking forgiveness,” it said.

The Pacific Islands Forum, which comprises 16 island nations as well as Australia and New Zealand, doesn’t have any political or regulatory powers. It holds leaders’ meetings and also provides a way for the region to present a united voice on issues such as climate change.

The Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, the Marshall Islands and Palau also had threatened to leave the forum after a February 2021 meeting elected a Polynesian candidate, former Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna, as secretary general instead of a Micronesian candidate. Only Kiribati acted on the threat.  

Puna reiterated last week that he won’t seek a second term as part of the resolution to Micronesian grievances. 

BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated news service.

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