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Kiribati leaves key Pacific island block

#Kiribati #leaves #key #Pacific #island #block

Kiribati has emerged from the leading bloc of Pacific island nations, splintering the group when its leaders convene 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 made “the sovereign decision” to withdraw “effective immediately” from the 51-year-old Fiji-based Pacific Islands Forum.

In a July 9 letter shared with AFP, Kiribati President Taneti Maamau cited the forum’s failure to honor a “gentlemen’s agreement” to nominate a Micronesian candidate to head the secretariat.

The row had led to a threat from the Micronesian countries to leave the bloc, but it was reportedly tempered last month with a top post rotation deal to be discussed at this week’s summit.

The Kiribati leader cited his country’s July 12 National Day celebrations as another reason for not attending the summit.

Leaders from more than a dozen forum nations will meet in Fiji’s capital Suva July 12-14 at a crucial time as China seeks to expand its diplomatic and security engagements in the region.

“Your meeting today takes place in a rapidly evolving regional and international context,” Secretary-General Henry Puna said at a similar event on Monday.

“The development and security challenges we face today, from Covid-19 to climate change and marine pollution, underscore the critical importance of regional and multilateral cooperation.”

Beijing’s growing influence in the region — notably a secret security pact with the Solomon Islands in April — has raised concerns among 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 region’s security strategy.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Kiribati in May during a whistle-stop tour of the Pacific and signed 10 deals on areas including climate and economy, but not security.

Threatened by a changing climate caused by rising sea levels, low-lying Kiribati is strategically located 3,000 kilometers (1,800) miles southwest of Hawaii with one of the largest Exclusive Economic Zones in the world.

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