By Jonathan Barrett
SYDNEY (Reuters) - A closely watched independence vote in the Pacific state of Chuuk, part of the U.S.-aligned Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), scheduled for next month has been postponed until 2022, the island told Reuters.
Chuuk's proximity to Guam, an American territory with air force and naval bases, and strategic location in the Pacific had raised the profile of the proposed vote amid expectations it would likely turn to China if became independent.
The island state, also known as Truk, is the most heavily populated of the four members that make up the FSM and has harbored independence aspirations amid discontent over how funding has been shared.
Chuuk State Attorney General Sabino Asor said in a statement to Reuters that Chuuk would give the FSM more time to "correct some of the deficiencies" by rescheduling the vote to March 2022.
"Let's please wait and see," said Asor, who is leading the pro-independence campaign.
The independence movement has been complicated by debate over the legal mechanisms Chuuk could use to leave the FSM, an independent country backed by U.S. financial and military agreements contained in what is called a Compact of Free Association.
It is the second time the vote has been postponed.
"The people of Chuuk and the people of the FSM are one and the same, and as Micronesians are committed to our national values of peace, unity, and liberty," the FSM government said in a statement to Reuters.
China has challenged U.S. influence in the Pacific in recent years by forging stronger economic ties with small island nations, and drawing countries out of their long-term alliances with Taiwan.
Though tiny in land mass, Pacific nations including the FSM control vast swaths of ocean, forming a boundary between the Americas and Asia.
Jian Zhang, associate professor at UNSW Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy, said Micronesian states were ideally located.
"It is in quite a strategic area, both close to U.S. bases, which could provide China an ability to monitor and deter military activity," Zhang told Reuters.
While the canceled vote will please U.S. interests, which have warned Chuuk against independence, the FSM is also subject to a wider diplomatic tug-of-war.
Parts of the agreement with the U.S. start expiring in 2023, raising the prospect that the island republic could shift its relationship towards Beijing, which has recently ramped up investment and diplomatic resources there.
In December, the FSM government disclosed details of at least $72 million worth of funding pledged by China for road construction, government building works and other projects after a state visit to Beijing by FSM President David Panuelo.
Four months earlier, Mike Pompeo became the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit the FSM.
"I'm pleased to announce the United States has begun negotiations on extending our compacts.... they sustain democracy in the face of Chinese efforts to redraw the Pacific," Pompeo told reporters at the time.
Graphic - Tug of war in the Pacific: https://graphics.reuters.com/PACIFIC-SAMOA-CHINA/0100B0D30T6/PACIFIC1.jpg
(Reporting by Jonathan Barrett in Sydney; Editing by Gerry Doyle)