One of the Pacific's elder statesmen has pleaded with Micronesian nations not to quit the region's top diplomatic body, saying small island states risked leaving themselves without a voice on the global stage.
Former Federated States of Micronesia president Emanuel Mori called for a "time out" on the bitter leadership row that threatens the future of the Pacific Islands Forum, with five of its 18 members vowing to leave.
"The hard reality is that we speak to strength when we speak as one across the Pacific," Mori said in a statement to AFP.
"I urge the trans-national Micronesian leadership considering this drastic move to call a time out. Let's discuss this possible move in depth."
Long-simmering differences among the region's Micronesian, Polynesian and Melanesian peoples erupted earlier this month during a fight over the rotating leadership of the forum.
Micronesian countries -- Palau, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, and Federated States of Micronesia -- were furious their candidate for the Forum's next secretary-general was rejected in favour of ex-Cook Islands premier Henry Puna.
The Micronesians had argued it was their turn to fill the post under an informal arrangement that has stood for decades, and claimed the snub showed the forum was biased towards members from the South Pacific.
Mori, the FSM leader from 2007 to 2015, acknowledged the strength of feeling over the leadership snub but said the Pacific, including Micronesia, faced bigger issues.
"There's too much at stake... to be talking about going it alone at this time," the 72-year-old said.
He said the challenges included "a concerted effort on climate change; protection of our strategic interests during another period of Big Power military and diplomatic muscle-flexing; and coordinated efforts to keep the novel coronavirus pandemic from potentially decimating our small populations".
- 'Existential damage' -
The PIF is mostly made up of small island states, along with Australia and New Zealand, and is a key element of the US allies' diplomatic efforts in the region.
It has helped to amplify the climate change concerns of small island states threatened by rising seas and ever-more intense cyclones
Mori said Pacific nations needed to work together to strengthen their voice internationally.
"This is not the time to withdraw into our own corners of this great Pacific Ocean and try to find a way forward alone," he said.
The PIF was established in 1971 as the South Pacific Forum, adopting its current name in 1999 to reflect its wider membership.
Transform Aqorau, a senior fisheries official who has dealt closely with the PIF for decades, said Micronesian nations came to the forum later than their South Pacific counterparts.
He said expanded membership had also made weakened the personal ties between PIF leaders, a situation exacerbated recently as the coronavirus crisis limited dialogue opportunities.
"In the Pacific, personal contact and rapport is very important," he told AFP.