Kiribati Opposition’s Call to Australia After Shock Pacific Forum Withdrawal
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Kiribati Opposition’s Call to Australia After Shock Pacific Forum Withdrawal


APLN member Tessie Lambourne has called on Pacific leaders to not give up on her nation despite Kiribati’s president withdrawing it from the Pacific Islands Forum. Read the original article here.

Kiribati’s opposition leader has suggested the last-minute move to withdraw her nation from the Pacific Islands Forum was influenced by China. Speaking to SBS News from her home island Abemama, Tessie Lambourne said the government has been “bending over backwards to accommodate the interests of China”.

“China obviously has an agenda for the region and Kiribati is part of its plan,” she said. “My assessment is that maybe China wants to isolate us from the rest of the forum, because they don’t want us to be part of the region that Australia and New Zealand is part of and have perhaps more influence over than any other.”

What happened?

The president of Kiribati pulled his nation out of the regional advocacy body on Monday, just 24 hours before the annual leaders’ meeting was scheduled to begin in Fiji.

In a three-page letter leaked to New Zealand media, President Taneti Maamau outlined his reasons for leaving the Pacific Island Forum (PIF). Chiefly, he said was feeling unheard.

Ms Lambourne called on Pacific leaders, including Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, to continue to engage with the government of Kiribati.

“I think what I want to say to our forum family is not to give up on Kiribati.”

“I really hope that we will get back into the Pacific Island Forum family very soon. We need each other. The forum will not be complete with a family member being outside of the family.”

‘Matter of principle’

The group argued this broke a “gentleman’s agreement”, in which the top job rotated between the regions, and a Micronesian leader was next in line to lead the organisation.

The nations were brought back into the fold last month, in a deal that would see Henry Puna finish his term and be replaced by a Micronesian leader in the next vote. It was expected that this deal would be signed at the meeting in Suva, Fiji’s capital, this week.

But the deal was not enough to keep Kiribati onside. In his letter, President Maamau said “it was a matter of principle” and his government was never properly consulted.

The president was also irked that his request to delay the meeting – to avoid a clash with Kiribati’s Independence Day celebrations – went unanswered.

“It is meant to be a reminder to us all that our solidarity and unity as a region is dependent on how we treat each other with profound respect and understanding as we work through the challenges we face as a region,” he wrote.

The opposition leader said this reason is, in her view, “not valid” and it was an “extreme move” to pull Kiribati out of the Pacific family.

“I believe the compromise that was reached was fair enough,” Ms Lambourne said.

“We already have a secretary-general in office and it’s not the Pacific way to try and get rid of somebody who has already been elected.

To allow him to serve out his term, then to get our turn after that, I thought that was quite a good compromise.”

“I say he [President Maamau] made that decision on an emotional level. I think I can understand, a little bit, why he would do such a thing. But I mean, it’s so extreme to pull Kiribati out of the forum for those reasons.”

China has denied attempting to influence Kiribati’s decision.

“I would like to stress that we never interfere in the internal affairs of Pacific island countries and hope that island countries will strengthen solidarity and cooperation for common development,” said China’s foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin.

China has been pushing for greater influence in the Pacific, with its Foreign Minister Wang Yi visiting Kiribati on a whirlwind Pacific tour in May.

He was seeking a wide-ranging regional deal with 10 Pacific nations including Kiribati, to strengthen ties on security, trade and development. This was politely declined by Pacific leaders who pushed for more time to discuss the proposal.

The latest move by Kiribati to distance itself from the Pacific body could benefit China.
Image Credit: Getty, AFP / William West
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