SYDNEY/WELLINGTON – Five Pacific island nations will start withdrawing from the region’s main political forum, according to a joint statement, in the fallout from a fractious leadership vote last week.

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

The impending withdrawals from the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) would reduce the number of members to 13 and be dominated by South Pacific nations like Fiji, Papua New Guinea and regional heavyweights Australia and New Zealand.

“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 the statement, sent after a virtual meeting of the Micronesian country leaders on Monday.

Former Cook Islands prime minister Henry Puna won the tightly-contested vote last week to become the forum’s new Secretary General.

Mr. Puna defeated Micronesia’s Gerald Zackious, the Marshall Islands ambassador to the United States, by nine votes to eight.

PIF 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 that threatens 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 that 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 based in Wellington, said there would likely need to be concessions made in order for any of the Micronesian states to remain with the forum. – Reuters