Kiribati pulls out of Pacific Islands Forum in blow to regional body | Kiribati

The key Pacific diplomatic body has received a devastating blow on the eve of its first in-person meeting since the pandemic, as Kiribati announced it would withdraw from the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF).

The Pacific has become a site of intense geostrategic competition, due to heightened Chinese interest, and Kiribati’s withdrawal will weaken the forum at a time when peaceful regionalism in the face of fierce geopolitical attention has never been more important. .

Taneti Maamau, the President of Kiribati, set out the reasons for his decision in a letter to the PIF Secretary General which was first reported by 1New Zealand News but which was independently obtained by the Guardian.

“Kiribati has made a sovereign decision to withdraw from the Pacific Islands Forum with immediate effect. This decision was not taken lightly,” he wrote, adding that the decision “was never intended to offend or be against any of our Pacific Islander brothers and sisters.” .

Maamau outlined four reasons for the decision, most of which revolve around his belief that the forum has not adequately addressed the concerns of Micronesian countries – including Kiribati – who threatened to leave the PIF a while ago. more than a year.

In February 2021, Micronesian leaders announced their intention to leave the regional body after their candidate for the post of secretary general of the forum was rejected in favor of a Polynesian candidate, despite a “gentleman’s agreement” according to which the position higher should be shared between Polynesians, Melanesians and Micronesian Candidates.

Micronesian leaders had signaled their intention to leave the forum at the end of June, but last-minute talks in Suva last month between key Pacific leaders, including some from Micronesia, reportedly resolved the impasse.

The talks resulted in the signing of the Suva agreement, which included the formalization of the “gentleman’s agreement”, the commitment of a Micronesian candidate to be the next secretary general of the forum, the creation of a new PIF office in a Micronesian country and the relocation of the post of Pacific Ocean Commissioner to Micronesia.

At the time of signing, David Panuelo, the president of the Federated States of Micronesia, said the agreement had lifted the “big, dark, dark cloud that hung over the Pacific”.

However, in the letter dated July 9, Maamau said that Kiribati’s concerns had not been sufficiently addressed and that his country would not sign the Suva accord or participate in the forum, which is due to start on Monday. Suva.

He said another reason for Kiribati’s inability to participate in this year’s forum was that the dates of the forum coincided with Kiribati’s National Day celebrations.

The decision comes at a crucial time for the Pacific region, which is facing intense geostrategic interest from China, the United States and Australia.

“It is very clear that geostrategic competition is the backdrop to this PIF like never before. This is the first time since the Cold War that the Pacific has really been in the crosshairs of the great powers,” said Dr Wesley Morgan, senior fellow at the Climate Council, who is in Suva for the forum.

“It could be a blow to regional unity in the Pacific, and unity is really important if island nations are to tackle major challenges – like geostrategic competition and, of course, the main threat to the region – climate change. .”

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The importance of regionalism in the Pacific was seen last month when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a marathon tour of the Pacific and presented leaders with a broad regional economic and security agreement in sign.

Pacific leaders rejected the deal, with Samoa Prime Minister Fiamē Naomi Mata’afa saying it should have been raised at the Pacific Islands Forum, not a sub-meeting.

Dr Anna Powles, a senior lecturer in security studies at Massey University in New Zealand, said the decision likely stemmed from a combination of domestic politics in Kiribati and frustrations with diplomatic processes.

“It’s not clear yet what China’s role is in this decision, but China would definitely benefit from an isolated Kiribati,” Powles said. “There have been concerns about the nature of the Chinese interest in Kiribati and concerns about the exploitation of the fishery, as well as the potential strategic interest.”

Powles said Kiribati’s move was a “devastating blow” to the Pacific Islands Forum, which has played a crucial role in providing collective oversight of Pacific nations on issues such as fisheries and security.

« The 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific [the strategy document that will be presented to Pacific leaders at this year’s forum], which will be approved in the coming week by the leaders, speaks in a very robust language of the importance of regionalism, the Pacific Way; losing Kiribati on the eve of this strategy is really devastating, actually.

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