Exclusive: Pacific Islands Forum crisis as Kiribati withdraws

1News can reveal Kiribati has withdrawn from the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) with immediate effect, plunging the regional body in to crisis.

Kiribati Govt building.

The news comes despite increased efforts by island leaders over the past few days to persuade the country to stay.

Kiribati was one of five Micronesian nations which announced it would be leaving the forum last year, after feeling sidelined by bigger countries.

In a leaked letter to Secretary General of the forum, Kiribati President, Taneti Maamau said the country had decided to leave due to four key reasons.

Leaked letter from Kiribati's President.

These included the regions "reluctance" to address concerns over the appointment of Cook Islander, Henry Puna to the secretary general role, despite it being promised to Micronesia.

Concerns were also raised over reform packages made under the Suva agreement last month, which aimed to restore political unity and encourage Micronesian countries to remain in the forum. The Kiribati President said his country did not sign the deal.

“There was never a Micronesian Presidents' Summit (MPS) caucus decision on the PIF reform packages that Kiribati was part of, and particularly an MPS collective decision to return to the PIF”, he said.

The President also requested for the forum to be deferred, due to it coinciding with Kiribati National day, but said this request was never considered or acknowledged.

“Solidarity and unity as a region is dependent on how we treat each other with profound respect and understanding,” Maamau said.

The news of the island nation's withdrawal has shocked other Pacific leaders.

1News revealed the departure to Niuean Premier, Dalton Tagelagi, who said he was “sad to hear” of its exit, and “can only pray for and comfort Kiribati”.

Tuvalu’s Foreign Minister, Simon Kofe said he hopes the country will reconsider its decision.

“I think it's critical because the way we operate in the forum is that we want to reach consensus on all issues and if one of our members is not happy with that we have to keep trying our hardest to get them on board”.

Official sources told 1News Kiribati has become increasingly isolated and has refused to engage at a diplomatic level.

There are growing suspicions Beijing is behind the country’s exit, with Kiribati strategically important to China due to nearby US Military installations and marine resources.

Massey University lecturer, Anna Powles said having an ally outside of the forum would benefit China.

“There are checks and balances that exist within regionalism that are incredibly important for ensuring the stability of the wider Pacific family. Now to be outside those mechanisms it would be a benefit for a country like China”.

Nauru has also confirmed it will not attend due to a Covid-19 outbreak on the island, while the Marshall Islands will miss the forum due to legal issues.

The 51st Pacific Island Forum will begin tomorrow and run to July 15 in Fiji’s capital, Suva.