The leaders of five Micronesian nations have threatened to withdraw from the Pacific Islands Forum unless they get to choose the head of the regional grouping, risking instability in an area where China is vying for influence.
The Micronesian heads, who do not share a unified stance on Beijing, argue it is their turn to select the PIF secretary-general under an informal arrangement that has stood for decades.
But several high-profile candidates from elsewhere in the Pacific have also nominated, including former Cook Islands prime minister Henry Puna.
The five leaders — from Palau, the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, and the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) — say they will walk if their wishes are not met.
“If this agreement is not honored, then the presidents would see no benefit to remaining in the PIF,” they said in a communique issued over the weekend after a meeting of the Micronesian Presidents’ Summit in Palau.
Their departure would be a major blow for the 18-member PIF, which is mostly made up of small island states, along with Australia and New Zealand.
It could also provide an opening for China to boost its influence with the sparsely populated but strategically important Pacific island nations.
US Defense Secretary Mark Esper accused China in August of “destabilising” the region to boost its diplomatic leverage.
Papua New Guinea’s Dame Meg Taylor has led the PIF since 2014 and was due to be replaced at the organisation’s annual August summit in Vanuatu, which was cancelled because of Covid-19.
The preferred Micronesian candidate is Gerald Zackios, the Marshall Islands ambassador to the United Nations.
Puna argued the coronavirus crisis meant convention should be ignored in favour of good leadership.
“There is also a growing thinking that because the situation the region is in, and indeed the whole world, we need to look for the best possible candidate to fill that position,” he told the Cook Islands News.
However, Nauru President Lionel Aingimea indicated there was no room for compromise.
“This is a matter now of Micronesian solidarity and Micronesian pride,” he told reporters in Palau after the summit.