Kiribati has announced its withdrawal from the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) as China is believed to have exerted its political influence in a bid to extend its footprint in the country.
The 51st PIF kicked off this July with a crisis when Micronesian country Kiribati announced its decision to withdraw from the regional body due to a leadership disagreement.
Back in February 2021, Micronesian leaders announced plans to leave the regional body after their candidate for Secretary General was passed over in favour of a Polynesian candidate.
However, the sudden move from Kiribati has sparked criticism among the country’s opposition. Tessie Lambourne, a former diplomat who was elected to Kiribati’s parliament in 2020, said she was “shocked and extremely disappointed” by the move.
Lambourne said she believed that President Taneti Maamau’s decision was influenced by China, and it was in the country’s interest to isolate Kiribati from the Pacific community.
“I believe there is someone telling our government that we don’t need regional solidarity. That we don’t need to be a part of the Pacific family. That we don’t need Australia and New Zealand. They are telling us that they are here for us and that they will help us with everything we need,” Lambourne said.
“I always say this because I don’t trust China’s intentions. What will Kiribati achieve now by not being a member of the forum? And what family do we belong to now if we have pulled out from our Pacific family?”
The allegations come after the US has announced a major investment in its engagement with the Pacific region – including the establishment of new embassies in Kiribati and Tonga – in a bid to counter China’s growing influence in the region as Kiribati presents vast fishing resources and proximity to US military installations.
US Vice President, Kamala Harris, made the announcement on 12 July promising the appointment of a special presidential envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum, and tripling funding for economic development and ocean resilience, up to $60 million (£50.2 million) a year for 10 years.
Kiribati’s Secretary of Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration, Michael Foon, has since denied all allegations: “A sovereign decision must be understood as being sovereign, and I can confirm that it has absolutely no bearing on any external party. Any assumption that it is influenced or coerced is absolutely inaccurate and untrue,” he told China-state affiliated media.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has also intervened declaring Beijing had no part in Kiribati’s stance: “Let me make it clear that these reports are completely groundless,” said China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin.
“For years, China and the PIF have sound cooperative relations. I would like to stress that China does not interfere in the internal affairs of Pacific Islands countries.”
The President of the Marshall Islands and the Prime Minister of Cook Islands have also pulled out the PIF summit.