NZ welcomes Kiribati back to the Pacific Islands Forum family


New Zealand has welcomed the decision by Kiribati to return to the Pacific Islands Forum.

In July 2022, President Taneti Maamau announced his government was withdrawing its support of the forum because they were not happy with the leadership at the region’s peak diplomatic body.

But this week, the Kiribati government said the decision to return to the forum whānau came after a “fruitful, positive, and successful” bilateral meeting held between Maamau, forum secretary-general Puna, and forum chair and Fiji Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka.

New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta has praised the joint efforts of the three leaders.

“Aotearoa New Zealand looks forward to welcoming Kiribati back to the Pacific Islands Forum whānau,” Mahuta said.

“Vinaka and ko rab’a Forum Chair PM Rabuka and President Maamau for your leadership and talanoa. Together we can build consensus and act on shared challenge.”

Prior to the forum leaders’ summit in Fiji in July, which was attended by Mahuta and then prime minister Jacinda Ardern, Mahuta was left to respond to criticism over her perceived inaction, particularly on China’s growing influence in the region.

“With Kiribati, our two nations share a strong partnership based on core values, and a mutual interest in a safe and secure Blue Pacific,” Mahuta said in a statement.

The fallout following Maamau’s announcement last July stemmed from Micronesia’s disappointment over the appointment of Puna, former Cook Islands prime minister, in 2018.

Leaders from Kiribati, Nauru, Palau, Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) said the forum members had dishonoured a “gentleman’s agreement” under which it was Micronesia’s turn at the helm of the secretariat. Four of them pledged to remain in the Forum.

The Chinese government was accused by forum members and political commentators of being behind Kiribati’s withdrawal. Beijing has rejected the claims.

China was also criticised over its security deal with the Solomon Islands early last year. The agreement allows Solomons’ Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare to call on Beijing, at any time, for defence and security assistance.

Rabuka’s inaugural state visit to Kiribati last week has been hailed as a success.

In a statement, the Kiribati government said Rabuka formally delivered an apology through a traditional Fijian ceremony – seeking forgiveness from Kiribati – followed with a meeting between the two leaders.

“The meeting focused on strengthening bilateral relations between Fiji and Kiribati and discussed the restoration of unity in the Blue Pacific family as well as reaffirming the need to collectively work in unity and promote regional co-operation as enshrined in the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent,” it said.

Rabuka said Kiribati’s return “back into the fold” meant greater regional unity and development.

In August 2022, Mahuta appointed Andre Van Der Walt as New Zealand’s next high commissioner to Kiribati.

During her visit to the Cook Islands last October, Mahuta said the bond between the Pacific and New Zealand would never break.

“Our ties to its people run deep through whakapapa, language, culture and shared interests,” she said, adding Aotearoa is a country in and of the Pacific.

Mahuta also visited Tonga, Niue, Kiribati, Fiji and Papua New Guinea and hosted the leaders of Samoa, Australia and the Solomon Islands.

Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles said Kiribati remained a valued member of the Forum and should be back in the PIF.

The Kiribati government had suspended New Zealand judge Bill Hastings in July 2022 as chief judge of the Pacific nation’s High Court.

While the move was unrelated to the country’s withdrawal from the forum, Hastings had previously been critical of threats to the rule of law in Kiribati.