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Regional News

Vote on Micronesia state breakaway postponed

WELLINGTON (Channel News Asia) —  A referendum next month on independence for the Micronesian state of Chuuk has been postponed, officials in the Pacific nation said Friday, defusing an issue seen as a potential flashpoint between China and the United States.

The vote to decide if Chuuk should secede from the Federated States of Micronesia was scheduled to be held alongside national elections on Mar 5.

But chief legal counsel for the Chuuk state legislature Eliesa Tuiloma, said the vote, which was originally supposed to take place in March 2015, had been put off again until a date yet to be determined.

“Yes, it’s been delayed,” he said. “This will allow us to look more closely at the constitutional implications.”

The Federated States of Micronesia consists of more than 600 islands in the northern Pacific scattered over thousands of kilometres but containing a combined landmass of only 700 sq km.

Chuuk is the largest of the FSM’s four states and, with about 50,000 people, has around half the country’s population.

Some locals have long been resentful the national capital Palikir is in Pohnpei state and believe they do not receive a fair share of government resources, leading to a push for independence.

FSM government spokesman Richard Clark said secession as proposed in the referendum was currently illegal and would need constitutional amendments to proceed.

“One reason for the delay is to allow more time for public education on what the referendum would mean, and another is to allow more time for legal experts and others to complete their work,” he said

Heightened tensions

A major complicating factor is that the resource-poor country is in a compact of free association with the United States, meaning grants from Washington prop up most of its services.

Citizens also get the right to live and work in the United States.

Independence advocates say if a new nation of Chuuk was formed, they would simply negotiate a new compact with Washington, but U.S. officials have said this is unlikely to happen.

If the United States did play hardball and refuse a new compact, analysts fear Chuuk would turn to China —  further heightening already tense competition between Beijing and Washington in the Pacific.

“Chuuk would find in China a new source of financing to substitute for the abandoned compact, while Beijing could cultivate a new ally in the Pacific,” research group Fitch Solutions said in a briefing note on the situation this week.

“Indeed, China could even assume responsibility for Chuuk’s defense and foreign policies, especially if it establishes a military presence in the archipelago,” it said.

The prospect of a Chinese military base on Chuuk would set alarm bells ringing in Washington and for its allies in the region.

The state’s major feature is Chuuk lagoon, also known as Truk lagoon, an immense body of water more than 60km across created by a barrier reef, offering an ideal shelter for ships.

It has already demonstrated its military usefulness, when Japan based one if its fleets there in World War II.

The lagoon contains the wrecks of more than 50 Japanese ships bombed by the U.S. in 1944 and is renowned as one of the world’s best diving spots.