The problems that beset Chuuk could lead to its secession from the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), effectively dissolving the FSM, fracturing the Freely Associated States (FAS), and upsetting the strategic balance in the Western Pacific.
Previously known as Truk, Chuuk is a geographical expanse of islands in the Western Pacific barely 1,000 kilometers from the U.S. unincorporated territory of Guam. Chuuk is one of four states in the FSM — the others being Kosrae, Pohnpei, and Yap, with the FSM capital, Palikir, located in Pohnpei.
Chuuk lies at the center of the FSM, in many ways the linchpin of the Freely Associated States. The foremost example of political free association in the world today, the FAS is comprised of the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau. In free association, the United States is committed by law to defending each of the FAS countries, in perpetuity, as it would itself and provides generous development assistance, immigration benefits, and other support.
The FAS are by treaty and law, therefore, America’s closest allies.
So far, free association has proven a successful and flexible model that could be expanded to, or emulated by, other countries. And yet, the question of Chuuk ever hangs like a Sword of Damocles over the future of the FSM, the FAS and the alliance itself.
The FSM is a fascinating archipelagic country with a democratic, confederated system of governance that reserves most power to the states, leaving the central government in Palikir relatively weak. Each of the states has its own unique character and traditions, some remarkably complex and arcane, growing out of widely disparate political cultures derived from some different, and many shared, historical experiences. Nonetheless, wags have tried to distill the four states’ political cultures down to four different, corresponding organizing principles: in the case of Yap, aristocracy; Pohnpei, monarchy; Kosrae, theocracy; and, finally, Chuuk, anarchy.
Actually, for the Chuukese to have integrated politically to the extent they have is in itself no mean feat. Administering a diverse and populous archipelago in the middle of the greatest expanse of ocean in the world is a daunting task under even the best of circumstances. Most Chuukese live on islands—including the Chuukese capital of Weno—located within the world-famous Chuuk Lagoon, but many Chuukese live on islands farther flung. The Chuukese language varies from island to island. Some of the islands were traditional rivals that warred with each other. Airline travel is expensive and tenuous, travel by boat uncomfortable, slow, and dangerous. Yet, Chuuk has made strides, producing many of the FSM’s most important political leaders, establishing the very first high school in the Trust Territories of the Pacific Islands, and maintaining some of the purest vestiges of traditional island culture in the Pacific.
In my many visits to Chuuk, I noted that its economy depends precariously on dive tourism and remittances from abroad; lack of opportunity and jobs leads to rampant alcoholism, exacerbating law and order challenges that surface not only in Weno, but on other islands and in Chuukese communities abroad, especially in Guam; and most FSM deportees from the United States are Chuukese, now effectively confined for the rest of their lives to only those few terrestrial miles between, but not including, Guam and Hawaii.
Land issues—always sensitive in island societies—are particularly debilitating in Chuuk. Conflicting family claims and unclear land titles paralyze infrastructure and other development, lead to padlocked schools and roadways in disrepair, and deprive Chuukese of the ability to collateralize their properties for the purpose of securing bank loans. Issues involving nepotism and petty corruption—endemic in the FSM, as in most island societies—seem to be an order of magnitude worse in Chuuk.
Chuuk’s difficulty in wrestling with these challenges has fomented resentment and hard feelings on all sides. Other Micronesians grumble that Chuuk is weighing them down and holding the country back from national progress. U.S. jurisdictions most impacted by Chuukese immigration complain that the social welfare costs they incur are inadequately offset by the Compact Impact funding they receive in compensation from the U.S. Federal government. The Chuukese feel they receive less than their due from FSM revenue sharing. This has fueled secessionist sentiment in Chuuk, with the Faichuk portion of Chuuk on the western side of the Lagoon threatening to secede from the rest of the state, and Chuuk State threatening to secede from the FSM.
The thrice-postponed vote on the question of Chuukese secession is rescheduled now for 2022. All but dismissed in some quarters, the issue ought not be taken lightly, as Chuukese secession would effectively shatter the FSM. Yap State would be tempted to leave the FSM and merge with Palau, with which it shares many cultural and historical ties. Close ties between Pohnpei and Kosrae could lead them to establish their own civil order. Newly independent Chuuk would be left to its own devices.
As the legal successor state to the FSM, the new polity formed by Pohnpei and Kosrae could inherit the existing U.S.-FSM Compact. Yap could fall under the U.S. Compact with Palau. But an independent Chuuk would fall outside the protections and immigration and other benefits afforded by the existing Compact.
Such a development is not one Washington should view with equanimity. Chuuk adrift would be like an unlashed cannon on the surface of a ship: in turbulent seas, the danger rises exponentially. The Compact prohibits the establishment of military bases by a third power. Remove that prohibition, and Chuuk Lagoon becomes very much in play.
During World War II, Chuuk was considered Imperial Japan’s “Gibraltar of the Pacific” because of the reputed impregnability of its fortifications — also its “Pearl Harbor,” because its wide and deep lagoon was the Imperial Japanese Navy’s largest forward operating base. Following the Anglo-American “Operation Hailstone” attacks of February 1945, the lagoon became the largest ship graveyard in the world.
Endorsing a strategy eerily similar to that followed by Imperial Japan in World War II, many Chinese military strategists routinely include Micronesia in what they regard as the Second Island Chain the PRC should seize in the event of general war with the United States. Whether by seizure or commercial arrangement, Chuuk Lagoon could once again become a forward operating base inimical to U.S. interests.
Conversely, Chuuk has the potential to serve as an important harborage for the U.S. Navy in the unhappy event of another Pacific war. Ulithi Atoll in Yap State shares that potential. Ulithi was America’s secret staging place in World War II for the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Both lie outside the range of Chinese short- and medium-range ballistic missiles.
When Emanuel Mori of Chuuk became FSM president in 2007, he obtained from the People’s Republic of China a one-time $4 million grant, mostly used to bail out Chuuk, after hinting that, without it, the FSM might be tempted to switch diplomatic recognition from Beijing to Taipei. Ever since, the relationship has been touted by Beijing as its model for Pacific Island countries. Bilateral trade is burgeoning. In 2017, the FSM signed onto Beijing’s ambitious “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure and trade initiative. Last December, current FSM President David Panuelo returned from a visit to Beijing with $72 million in promised development funding — nearly as much, in one sum, as the aggregate Beijing has given the FSM in its entire history.
By 2023, the United States and FSM need to negotiate a new financial framework to govern the relationship. It would be “penny wise, pound foolish” for Washington to low-ball Palikir. Whatever budget shortfalls the FSM experiences on the front end will only lead to diminished services and greater economic dislocation, sparking more Micronesian emigration to the United States and a worse social welfare impact on U.S. communities on the back end. It would drive the FSM toward greater dependence on PRC assistance and/or possible dissolution — if Chuuk does not trigger it first. The United States, FSM, and Chuuk itself should exert their best efforts to avert such an outcome.
Richard K. Pruett is a former U.S. Foreign Service officer who has served as Deputy Chief of Mission to six Pacific Island countries, including the FSM. He is now a senior consultant and director with The Stevenson Group, a Washington, DC-based consultancy specializing in international development and security.