Fiji's Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka says on Monday that Kiribati will rejoin the Pacific Islands Forum (PIFs), returning to the strategic bloc of nations as they grapple with China's push for regional influence.

Kiribati, a central Pacific country of some 120,000 people, quit the forum in July last year after it was snubbed in a vote to lead the secretariat.

New Fijian Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka has been trying to bring Kiribati back into the bloc, and earlier this month used his first official overseas visit to meet with Kiribati President Taneti Maamau.

Rabuka told AFP he had since received a letter from Maamau that indicated "they were willing to rejoin the Pacific Islands Forum".

"What we did a few weeks ago had to be done. That was the way to do things in the Pacific."

Regional powers Australia and New Zealand - who are both members of the Pacific Islands Forum - have stressed the bloc's importance in deciding the security strategy of the region.

The United States and allies such as Australia have been scrambling to limit China's expanding footprint in the Pacific.

China signed a security pact with Solomon Islands in April last year, sparking fears that it may eventually seek to establish a military base in the Melanesian archipelago.

Beijing then tried to push through a wide-ranging security pact involving 10 other Pacific nations, but was swiftly rebuffed.

Fiji, one of the forum's most influential members, had grown particularly close to China under former prime minister Frank Bainimarama, who was defeated in a turbulent general election in December.

Since taking office, Rabuka has since signalled his desire to loosen his country's reliance on Beijing, instead favouring stronger ties with Pacific neighbours.

"We have the same concerns, particularly economic concerns, our physical concerns related to climate change, and security concerns," he said.

"We are too small to be looking after ourselves, even if we combine our defence forces, we are still not able to look after ourselves so we need a stable region."

The forum is expected to meet in Fiji in March.

Source: Agence France-Presse (AFP)

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