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Kiribati leaves key Pacific island block

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

Kiribati has left the leading bloc of Pacific island nations, splitting 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 was patched up last month with a deal to rotate the top post, 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.

Heads of state and government from more than a dozen forum nations will meet in Fiji’s capital Suva from July 12-14 – the first such in-person summit since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic almost three years ago.

It comes 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 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 region’s security strategy.

– Strategic position –

Australia is working with Fiji to encourage Kiribati “not to enforce their formal decision to leave the country,” said Pat Conroy, Minister for the Pacific.

The island forum “is the central architecture for our region and obviously losing Kiribati would not be a good thing and so we are working hard to avoid that,” he told Australia’s national broadcaster ABC.

Conroy stressed that Kiribati’s stated concerns related to the leadership of the forum, not China.

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 occupies a strategic position 3,000 kilometers (1,800) miles southwest of Hawaii with one of the largest Exclusive Economic Zones in the world.

China’s South Pacific ambitions suffered a setback in late May when 10 Pacific island nations rejected their push for a far-reaching regional security pact.

Behind the scenes, Pacific leaders have expressed concerns about being dragged into Beijing’s orbit.

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