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The Pacific nation of Kiribati quit a key regional bloc Monday, fracturing the organization just as its leaders convene for a conference to address rising sea levels and China’s territorial ambitions in the region, Agence France-Presse reported.
The island nation said it had decided to leave the Fiji-based Pacific Islands Forum, saying that the bloc failed to honor a “gentlemen’s agreement” to appoint a Micronesian candidate to head the secretariat.
The dispute had briefly prompted Micronesian countries to threaten to leave the union before it was temporarily resolved with a compromise last month to rotate the top role, which will be debated at this week’s summit.
Pacific island leaders are meeting in Fiji’s capital this week to discuss a number of major issues, including climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic.
One of the main topics will be China’s efforts to increase its diplomatic and security engagements in the region. In April, the Chinese government signed a secret security pact with the Solomon Islands, which raised concerns in the United States and its allies about Beijing’s intentions.
Bloc members Australia and New Zealand have also emphasized the forum’s importance in deciding the security strategy of the region.
Kiribati’s exit comes more than a month after it signed 10 agreements with China involving climate issues and economic matters but none relating to security.
The low-lying island of 120,000 is at risk of sinking due to rising sea levels. It is located more than 1,800 miles from Hawaii and has one of the largest exclusive economic zones in the world.