The prime minister says New Zealand has been a significant presence in the Pacific for years and will continue to be one.

WELLINGTON (STUFF NZ) — Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is optimistic Kiribati will return to the Pacific Islands Forum whānau after the former British colony withdrew its support for the regional body.

Kiribati President Taneti Maamau announced the move last week because his government is not happy with the group’s leadership.

Ardern and Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta joined forum leaders in Fiji from July 11-14 to discuss the climate crisis and security issues in the region, among other things.

While they remain in the forum, both leaders from the Marshall Islands and Cooks Islands – President David Kabua and Mark Brown – did not attend the Suva summit. Brown sent Foreign Secretary Tepaeru Herrmann to Suva instead.

Ardern believes Kiribati will continue to work with the forum on various issues impacting the Pacific, including climate change. Maamau declared a state of disaster last month with 120,000 i-Kiribati affected by the drought after rainfall levels hit their lowest point in the past six months.

“Yes, it would have been fantastic to have Kiribati here,” she told journalists in Suva. “It’s important that we all continue to keep the door open …and there will be a time and place where I hope Kiribati will determine that it’s the right time for them to return.”

In a letter posted on Twitter days before the meeting, Maamau said he had informed forum secretary-general Henry Puna of Kiribati’s decision to “pull out completely from PIF”.

Maamau said Kiribati was not party to the Suva Agreement signed in June and endorsed by five Micronesian leaders, which allowed Puna to continue at the secretariat.

Nauru, Kiribati, Palau, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia had announced in 2020 that they would be withdrawing from the forum after Puna, the former Cook Islands prime minister, was appointed to secretary-general in a secret ballot in 2019.

The Suva Agreement was welcomed and hailed as restoring unity in the Pacific after an intense period of diplomacy, and amid rising concern of a growing geopolitical power struggle in the region.

While the United States was allowed to address the meeting, China wasn’t able to hold an online talanoa session with the leaders during the week.

Even the usual post-forum meeting with 21 Dialogue Partners, including the US, was postponed because forum chairperson and Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama had opted to turn down the dial on the geopolitical competition.

China had signed a series of deals with Pacific nations during Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s 10-nation tour in May, but he failed to secure a region-spanning economic and security agreement. Wang only managed to convince the Solomon Islands to sign up to Beijing’s security plan, which has been widely condemned by the US, Australia and New Zealand.

With the ongoing climate, Covid-19, and cost of living crises in the Pacific, China’s growing influence and Kiribati’s withdrawal are new challenges facing the Blue Continent. Some regional leaders have accused China of influencing Kiribati to leave the forum.

Ardern said she was optimistic Kiribati would return in due course.

“But for now, there are really important things that we need to continue our focus on as a forum family and in fact, they are the very same issues Kiribati says they want to continue to work with the forum on, including climate change,” she said.

“I think actually meeting [in Fiji] face to face is still incredibly important, and I still believe the outcomes of the forum will demonstrate the success of the meeting, albeit the absence of one member.”

The leaders launched the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific – the region’s plan for the next three decades – at the summit.

Other Pacific Islands Forum members include Australia, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.

Cook Islands will host the next forum meeting in 2023, with the leaders agreeing the kingdom of Tonga for the 2024 summit and Solomons in 2025……PACNEWS

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