AUCKLAND -- A call for independence has emerged in the tiny Pacific atoll of Chuuk, and it threatens to unravel the Federated States of Micronesia, a strategic military partner for the U.S. since World War II.
Chuuk, with a population of 53,500, was to hold a referendum on independence in early March, but Gov. Johnson Elimo suspended it over technical issues. It is unclear when a new date will be set, especially after supertyphoon Maysak caused extensive damage at the end of March.
But the future status of Chuuk, also known as Truk, needs to be resolved, as a treaty that underpins the Federated States' relationship with the U.S. is nearing expiration.
Chuuk, a group of islets fringing the 94-sq.-km Chuuk Lagoon, is one of four states making up the federation. Together with Pohnpei, Kosrae and Yap, the Micronesian states have a total population of 106,000, spread over a 2.6 million-sq.-km stretch of the Pacific Ocean.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Caroline Islands -- which included Palau and the future Federated States -- were part of the German Empire. When World War I broke out, they were promptly occupied by Imperial Japan. During World War II, the U.S. attacked the Japanese fleet that had become trapped in Chuuk Lagoon. On Feb. 17, 1944, American aircraft sank around 45 ships.
The four Micronesian island groups became part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands after WWII, which was placed under Washington's administration. The Federated States, created in 1979, became sovereign in 1986 under a Compact of Free Association, which gave the U.S. the exclusive right to set up military bases there in return for regular financial support.
The deal, which provides the four states with 65% of their annual budgets, is set to expire in 2023. This is why Chuuk -- the most populous of the quartet -- is mulling its future status.
Thanks to the sunken Japanese fleet, Chuuk has a solid tourist industry based on wreck diving. But residents complain that the state has poor infrastructure, education and health systems because it does not get its fair share of U.S. subsidies, which are controlled by a central Federated States government.
Chuuk authorities set up a Political Status Commission in 2011 to assess options. Its members concluded in a December final report that only independence "offers real potential for a modern, healthy and productive Chuuk." The commission suggested that the state would get more direct access to U.S. funds if it struck out on its own -- and have the freedom to pursue investments from other countries.
From the U.S. point of view, it wants the Federated States to be self-sufficient after 2023. Washington is building up a trust fund that is already generating investment income that finances health and education on the islands.
The U.S. hopes that, after 2023, the fund's income can replace the cash it sends. Chuuk gets roughly $37 million a year from the U.S. For the states to be self-sufficient, the fund needs to reach $1.68 billion by the agreement's expiry. It stands at around $300 million today and the target is unlikely to be reached.
Elimo did not respond to questions about the prospects for independence. "There is nothing definite yet on the future of the referendum on Chuuk secession," said Rev. Francis X. Hezel, a Jesuit priest in the country and a respected commentator on Chuuk society. "He might hope that it simply goes away, but it is possible that it will be held at a later date."
Communications with Chuuk have been intermittent following the typhoon, but social media forums reveal many Chuukese are against independence. A local resident, Angie VanHorn, wrote on a message board that the referendum process was "very secretive and manipulating."
University student Kind Kanto complained that global warming will have a terrible impact on Chuuk, where most people live 5 meters above sea level, and that he could not understand the talk about independence when much more is at stake.
Stephen Manuere, a Chuukese living in the U.S., said the independence movement ignored the thousands of people not living on the islands. While the Political Status Commission talked to some migrants in the U.S., critics like Manuere say it was perfunctory and that most expatriates do not support secession.