Kiribati Withdraws From Pacific Islands Forum, Further Weakening West’s Bulwark Against Beijing

By Daniel Y. Teng
Daniel Y. Teng
Daniel Y. Teng
Writer
Daniel Y. Teng is based in Sydney. He focuses on national affairs including federal politics, COVID-19 response, and Australia-China relations. Got a tip? Contact him at daniel.teng@epochtimes.com.au.
July 11, 2022 Updated: July 11, 2022

The surprise withdrawal of Kiribati from the Pacific Islands Forum has dealt a heavy blow to the regional body—the peak intergovernmental organisation in the region.

The move comes amid ongoing dissatisfaction from Micronesian countries in the Forum, a festering issue that has erupted amid Beijing’s ongoing influence in the region.

On July 10, news of Kiribati’s decision emerged when TVNZ published a letter from President Taneti Maamau to Pacific Islands Forum Secretary-General Henry Puna. Maamau pointed to ongoing dissatisfaction with the running of the organization and the sidelining of Micronesia as the reason for his withdrawal.

“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 that we face,” according to his letter.

He also noted that smaller nations didn’t have the resources to go to regional forums if their voices weren’t being heard.

Leadership Woes at the Forum

Chief among the concerns has been the frustration of five smaller Micronesian governments over the election of the forum’s secretary-general.

The leadership of the forum is supposed to rotate between Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia, yet in the history of the organisation, there has only ever been one secretary-general from Micronesia, compared to seven from Polynesia, three from Melanesia, and two from Australia.

Further, controversy clouded the prospective 2020 election of Micronesian candidate Gerald Zackios, which eventually led to the February 2021 decision by Palau, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, and Nauru to all withdraw from the forum.

“Unfortunately, this has never been a standalone issue. It reflects the Micronesian region’s representation all too well,” according to Surangel Whipps Jr., the president of Palau.

Epoch Times Photo
This picture taken shows flags from the Pacific Islands countries being displayed in Yaren on the last day of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) on Sept. 5, 2018. (Mike Leyral/AFP via Getty Images)

“The disrespect we have been shown by forum leadership, as well as forum members, for the last two years was the last straw,” he wrote in an op-ed for The Guardian.

A year later, in February 2022, the governments decided to pause their withdrawal, and in June, an agreement was reached in Suva, Fiji, to ensure that after the resignation of current Puna, a Micronesian candidate would definitely be elected.

South Pacific expert Cleo Paskal questioned the effectiveness of the Forum in dealing with four recent major crises.

“In the past two to three years, there was the health crisis of COVID-19. There was the environmental catastrophe of the Tongan volcano earthquake and tsunami. There was the security crisis and riots in the Solomon Islands, and there was the institutional crisis around the University of the South Pacific,” she told The Epoch Times.

“The Pacific Island Forum just issued press releases but was not a major player in resolving any of those crises. So what does it do?”

Dysfunction Plays Into Beijing’s Hands

Paskal said Kiribati’s decision is “unsurprising” and demonstrates just how confident some leaders were working with the regime in Beijing.

“President David Panuelo [of the Federated States of Micronesia] went to Suva in June 2022 to try to put in place a new structure with which the Micronesians could agree to, and that’s because he’s scared of China,” she said.

“Clearly, Kiribati is perfectly fine with its relationship with China, and it sees no benefit being part of an organisation where it’s marginalised or feels that it’s marginalised.”

Beijing’s influence efforts ramped up in May after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi personally visited eight Pacific nations (and met with two virtually) while signing a swathe of new bilateral deals with the Pacific leaders covering a range of areas including pandemic response, education, and exports.

The Chinese Communist Party also tried to convince leaders to sign on to a sweeping 10-nation security and trade bloc for the region.

However, the deal was shelved at the last minute after President Panuelo of the Federated States of Micronesia wrote a letter to all Pacific leaders warning against the arrangement—it triggered further concerns from other leaders resulting in a lack of consensus around the deal.

Forum Supposed to Be Key Lever Against Beijing

Australian and New Zealand leaders had been banking on the forum as a bulwark against Beijing’s influence.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern a week earlier said her government would up engagement in the region while criticising the need to pressure Pacific nations to “pick sides” between the West and Beijing.

“For us the regional architecture of the Pacific is critical. New Zealand is committed to the Pacific Islands Forum as the vehicle for addressing regional challenges,” she told the Lowy Institute in Sydney.

“To that end, Forum members have been working together to develop the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent to provide a long-term vision of what we want to achieve together for our region.”

Paskal has previously said democratic governments needed to abandon the rigid bureaucratic approach to Pacific relations and adopt a more flexible approach to counteract Beijing.

“Australia’s and New Zealand’s bureaucracy says we have to hold half a dozen workshops and … we need to check those boxes. That’s what our bureaucracy says.” Paskal said. “You need to be flexible and adapt to their bureaucracy. A country like the Marshall Islands—their entire ministry of foreign affairs, including administrative staff, might be 15 people.”

Daniel Y. Teng
Daniel Y. Teng is based in Sydney. He focuses on national affairs including federal politics, COVID-19 response, and Australia-China relations. Got a tip? Contact him at daniel.teng@epochtimes.com.au.