Kiribati to return to Pacific Islands Forum at vital moment for regional diplomacy

Kiribati will return to the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) ending a dramatic rupture in the region’s peak diplomatic body, Fiji’s new prime minister has announced after visiting the country.

Kiribati announced it would be withdrawing from the PIF in July last year, on the eve of the group’s first in-person meeting in three years.

The move, which Kiribati’s opposition leader said was driven by pressure from China, dealt a devastating blow to the unity of the PIF, at a time when the Pacific was facing increased geo-strategic pressure, coming just months after Solomon Islands signed a controversial and secretive security deal with China.

Related:Kiribati withdraws from Pacific Islands Forum in blow to regional body

Sitiveni Rabuka, the prime minister of Fiji, confirmed on Monday that he had received word from the president of Kiribati, Taneti Maamau, that the country would return to the bloc.

This comes after a visit by Rabuka – who as prime minister of Fiji is the current chair of the Pacific Islands Forum – to Kiribati earlier in January, during which the Fijian delegation carried out a traditional ceremony, apologising to Maamau.

“The traditional ceremonies of the ‘boka’, ‘isevusevu’ and apology accorded to the people of the small island nation were significant in our efforts to promote regionalism within our Pacific vuvale [family],” Rabuka tweeted alongside photos of the ceremonies. “We sought the forgiveness of the people for Fiji’s ‘mistakes of the past in failing to unite the Pacific Islands Forum family’. We are with you as your brothers and sisters, we are with you as one people of the Pacific.”

In a letter to other Pacific leaders sent in July, Maamau outlined his reasons for leaving the PIF, most of which centred around a dispute regarding the leadership of the group, with Micronesian leaders saying their candidate had been passed over in favour of a candidate from Polynesia in contravention of a “gentleman’s agreement” about cycling the leadership through the sub-regions.

Kiribati’s absence was regularly noted and lamented by Pacific leaders during the week-long diplomatic meeting in Fiji, with leaders reiterating in public addresses that they hoped Kiribati would return to the group and the door would always be open to them.

Kiribati’s departure was seen as a blow to regionalism, which has been crucial to the Pacific’s ability to navigate increasing geo-political tensions, as China’s interest in the Pacific has accelerated.

In June, Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, conducted a tour of the Pacific and asked leaders to sign on to a sweeping regional economic and security deal. Pacific leaders rejected the deal, with Samoa’s prime minister, Fiamē Naomi Mata‘afa, saying it should have been raised at the Pacific Islands Forum, not at a sub-meeting.

Related:China’s foreign minister tells Pacific leaders ‘don’t be too anxious’ after they reject regional security pact

Rabuka’s visit to Kiribati has been part of a whirlwind month for the prime minister, since he secured a coalition victory in Fiji’s national elections in December – the first change of government in the Pacific country in 16 years.

Last week, Fiji’s new government suspended the police commissioner, who was seen as a close ally of former prime minister Frank Bainimarama, “pending investigation and referral to and appointment of, a tribunal”.

The Fiji Times also reported that Rabuka’s government planned to end a police training and exchange agreement with China.

“Our system of democracy and justice systems are different so we will go back to those that have similar systems with us,” Rabuka told the Fiji Times, in a reference to Australia and New Zealand.