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Australia, New Zealand Urge Calm as Peak Pacific Body Splinters  

FILE - National flags for the Pacific Islands Forum are on display on the tiny Pacific nation of Nauru, Sept. 3, 2018.
FILE - National flags for the Pacific Islands Forum are on display on the tiny Pacific nation of Nauru, Sept. 3, 2018.

New Zealand is urging disaffected Micronesian members of the Pacific Islands Forum not to quit the organization. A bitter leadership dispute has split the region’s main political and economic body.

Speaking in the New Zealand capital, Wellington, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the decision by Micronesian nations to leave the regional forum was regrettable. Australia, too, has urged the parties to settle differences.

Founded in 1971, it has 18 members, including Papua New Guinea, French Polynesia, Samoa, New Zealand and Australia. Experts believe that Palau, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati and Nauru feel overlooked by larger Melanesian members like Papua New Guinea and Fiji, which are culturally and geographically different.

There is bitter disagreement about who should lead the Pacific Islands Forum.

Micronesian states from the North Pacific have insisted an agreement to appoint their preferred candidate as the forum’s new secretary-general has been broken.

Australia and New Zealand are concerned about regional instability. There is also concern that disunity could encourage China to increase its influence over island nations. The archipelago of Kiribati recently swapped its formal diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to mainland China.

Jonathan Pryke is the director of the Pacific Islands Program at the Lowy Institute, an independent Sydney-based policy and research organization.

He says Chinese state media has tried to blame Canberra and Wellington for the forum’s problems.

“I do not think China will greatly benefit from this departure, but I am sure they will try to use any schisms that they see in the region to try and form wedges between Pacific nations and their traditional partners, like Australia and New Zealand," he said. "We have already seen commentary from the Global Times blaming Australia and New Zealand for the fallout of the forum in the last week.”

The dispute comes as the Pacific faces some of its greatest challenges, including COVID-19, which has devastated the tourism industry, and threats posed by climate change.

Much of the Pacific has remained free of the coronavirus, but its impact on global travel has inflicted huge economic damage on island nations that have been so reliant on tourism.

The Pacific Islands Forum strives to create a region of peace, harmony and prosperity, but the loss of almost a third of its membership will strike a damaging blow to this unique institution that seeks to bring together some of the world’s most remote communities.