Pacific Islands Forum ranks split amid US-China influence tussle

Micronesian countries argue it was their turn to fill chairmanship under informal arrangement that has stood for decades and claims the snub proves South Pacific bias

Pacific Islands Forum ranks split amid US-China influence tussle
The Tarawa atoll, part of the South Pacific nation of Kiribati, which has decided to follow neighbouring Palau’s decision last week to pull out of the Pacific Islands Forum over claims of regional bias. File photo by Reuters

(ATF) Another four nations have signalled they will leave the Pacific Islands Forum, further weakening the top diplomatic grouping as the US and China compete for influence.

The countries – Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, and the Federated States of Micronesia – are all part of the Micronesia subgroup and said they would follow neighbouring Palau’s decision last week to pull out of the forum over a leadership dispute.

“The Micronesian presidents jointly agreed to forthwith initiate the formal process of withdrawal from the Pacific Islands Forum respecting their national processes and will act swiftly like the republic of Palau,” they said in a draft joint communique.

The Micronesian countries have argued it was their turn to fill the chairmanship under an informal arrangement that has stood for decades and claimed the snub showed the forum was biased towards members from the South Pacific.

The forum is made up mostly of small island states along with US allies Australia and New Zealand, and is a key element of Washington’s diplomatic efforts in the Pacific Ocean. The departures reduce the forum to 12 members, all of them in the South Pacific.

The communique was drawn up after Micronesian leaders held a virtual meeting on February 8 to discuss the widening split among the normally close-knit Pacific island nations.

A row erupted on Thursday February 4, when the Micronesian candidate to be the forum's next secretary-general was rejected in favour of former Cook Islands premier Henry Puna. The leaders collectively expressed disappointment with the appointment process, which overlooked the Micronesian candidate Gerald Zackios.

A split in the forum's ranks could provide an opening for China to boost its influence with the sparsely populated but strategically important Pacific island nations. While the controversy pits Micronesians against South Pacific states, the forum has long been subject to competing influence between the US and China.

BUYING UP LAND

China has been throwing its weight around as part of its power projection in what are small islands in huge maritime territories. Chinese companies are buying up huge tracts of land in Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau.

Australia and New Zealand have both launched new Pacific strategies over the past year in a bid to counteract China’s influence.  

“Eight of the Pacific Island nations have relationships with China,” said David Morris, a political risk consultant. “In recent years, China has also provided low-cost loans for infrastructure and other aid, on similar terms that China has extended to other developing nations.”

Morris, vice-president of the Sustainable Business Network of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, said it is “manifestly in the interests of the Pacific islands” to benefit from economic links with China.

With reporting by Agence France-Presse

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