Regional unity was dealt a huge blow on the eve of the Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ summit when Kiribati withdrew from the body.
While Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern will attend the Fiji summit this week, regional solidarity has been undermined by Kiribati’s departure.
On Sunday evening, TVNZ reported that Kiribati President Taneti Maamau had sent a letter to the secretariat of the Pacific Islands Forum stating that he was withdrawing from participation.
Mr. Maamau’s main concern is to push the Micronesian states out of the 18 countries.
Last year, the Micronesian countries signaled their intention to leave the forum when their preferred candidate for secretary general lost in a hard-fought vote to former Cook Islands leader Henry Pune.
Pacific leaders believed they had negotiated a truce in Fiji last month that would see the breakaway countries return.
Instead, Kiribati pulled out in a move that veteran TVNZ Pacific reporter Barbara Driver called “absolutely devastating” and the organization’s biggest crisis in its 51-year history.
“The fact that Kiribati is not at the table is huge and incredibly sad, including for the people of Kiribati, who deserve to be represented at this table,” she said.
Ms Ardern admitted to being disappointed by the decision, telling Radio NZ that New Zealand “would love to have full membership”.
“That doesn’t stop us from working together,” she said.
The leaders’ summit, the first face-to-face meeting since 2019, is taking place in Suva amid heightened diplomatic competition in the Pacific.
Earlier this year, China completed a sweeping sweep of the region by signing a series of bilateral agreements.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visits the remote Pacific nation of Kiribati, where the future of a vast fishing ground is at stake. May 27, 2022 Credit: Anonymous / AP
Last month, the United States announced the creation of Partners in Blue Pacific, with support from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and the United Kingdom.
The exit of Kiribati, which changed its recognition from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019, is interpreted as an increase in Chinese influence.
“Regionalism plays a very big role,” Ms. Driver said.
“There are a lot of complex issues behind the scenes… big countries are trying to gain influence and shoot individual countries one by one.”
TVNZ also reports that other countries will miss the PIF leaders’ summit.
French Polynesia is sending its vice president, the Marshall Islands will be absent for legal reasons, and Nauru is also absent, most likely due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
For those present, climate change is on the agenda.
Members intend to sign the Blue Pacific Strategy 2050, a long-term vision for the region.