Five countries to abandon Pacific forum

·2-min read

Five Pacific island nations are set to withdraw from the region's main political forum in the fallout from a fractious leadership vote.

The presidents of Nauru, the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands and Palau said on Tuesday an informal agreement to elect a chief diplomat from their sub-region was not honoured last week.

The impending withdrawals from the Pacific Island Forum would reduce membership to 13 and allow South Pacific nations like Fiji, Papua New Guinea and regional heavyweights Australia and New Zealand to dominate.

"There is no value in participating in an organisation that does not respect established agreements, including the gentlemen's agreement on sub-regional rotation," said a joint statement sent after a virtual meeting of the Micronesian country leaders.

Former Cook Islands prime minister Henry Puna won the tightly-contested vote to become the forum's new secretary-general.

Puma defeated Micronesia's Gerald Zackious, the Marshall Islands ambassador to the United States, nine votes to eight.

Forum chair Kausea Natano, from Tuvalu, said last week the result was a "consensus decision" that followed an agreed process.

The dispute represents one of the biggest member revolts in the 50-year history of the forum, which has consistently lobbied larger nations to combat climate change threatening their low-lying islands.

Most island nation governments are also facing severe economic headwinds, due to their heavy reliance on international tourism, an industry that abruptly shut last year due to the coronavius pandemic.

The sparsely populated South Pacific island countries are strategic locations that have in recent years become a battleground for influence between China and the United States and its allies.

The joint letter said while the five countries would initiate the withdrawal process, the final decision on how to proceed remained with the respective governments.

Anna Powles, senior lecturer in the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at Massey University in Wellington, said there would likely need to be concessions made for any of the Micronesian states to remain.