A decolonisation plebiscite on Guam that was due to be held last month is likely to be deferred to 2018.
Controversy over who was eligible to vote and fears voters wouldn’t understand their options have been blamed for the postponement.
The delay means the US colony’s plebiscite could be held during the first term of President Trump, whose reaction to the result may depend on his stance towards China.
An unincorporated territory of the United States, Guam has been poised to hold the non-binding plebiscite since the 1980s that would give voters a choice of three options for their Micronesian island.
Become a US state, independence, or free association with the US.
To educate voters about each option three taskforces were established in 1997.
The Independence Taskforce had been accused of delaying this year’s plebiscite, but its co-chair Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero said Guam law required it to be held in conjunction with a gubernatorial election.
“So what the governor had been proposing was illegal because it was in violation of Guam’s own decolonisation plebiscite laws,” said Ms Leon Guerrero.
“That’s what we were opposed to. We were also opposed to our community being rushed to vote on something,” she said.
“We were just interested in ensuring that our community was informed. That we together were all educating each other on what would be best for Guam.”
The indigenous Chamorro, Guamanians and their decendants nativised by the Organic Act of 1950 are able to vote in the plebiscite, however, that is being challenged in a US court by a long-term American resident of Guam deemed ineligible to join the decolonisation registry.
13,192 people had joined the registry by mid-December, while about 52 thousand people were registered to vote in November’s general election.
Chair of the Free Association Taskforce Adrian Cruz said the three groups would now join forces to educate Guam on the importance of the plebiscite.
“So that’s the first task. Once we get maybe within about six to seven months before the actual election is when we are really going to try to make our particular option a little more clear,” he said.
“But the first thing we’ve all agreed to do is get people to be educated about why they should vote in general.”
Co-chair of the Statehood Taskforce Eloy P. Hara said becoming a state would allow the US military to protect Guam’s fisheries as China seeks greater influence in the region.
“The Chinese are already starting to move to try to take over the Federated States of Micronesia. They’re already loaning money to the FSM government,” said Mr Hara.
“As a state we can ask the military to enforce the economic zone. Right now the Chinese, the Koreans they come in and we have no way of protecting ourselves.”
With the number of US military personnel on Guam set to surge from six to 11 thousand as troops are relocated from Japan, Mr Cruz said free association would make Guam a sovereign nation with a say on America’s military presence.
He said most Guamanians have cultural and family ties to America and its military, but a recent decision to convert a culturally significant area into a live firing range made some reconsider the relationship.
“It demonstrated again how the military could unilaterally do things without our input,” said Mr Cruz.
“We’ve all seen the news from Okinawa and the protests and the grievances that they have and now we’re going to be in their shoes so to speak,” he said.
“That really made people think twice. It really gave impetus to the decolonisation movement.”
An independent Guam would have even more power to negotiate an equitable arrangement with the US military, according to Ms Leon Guerrero, which could include the return of the island’s most fertile farm land.
She said the election of President Trump had driven a surge of interest in the independence option given Guam would be at the forefront of a US-China war.
“Why would China have missiles called the Guam Killers? Because they see the United States’ presence here as an aggressive presence that’s directed at them,” said Ms Leon Guerrero.
“So those kinds of things are very terrifying that somebody like Donald Trump would make those kinds of decisions,” she said.
“Whether or not that country goes to war we will probably be the place that gets attacked and that’s really terrifying for such a small community.”
Mr Hara, who served in the US Navy, said becoming a state would drive infrastructure development on Guam to support an even larger military presence.
“If they build Guam sufficiently the war can be fought from here instead of being fought from the mainland US, just like they did during the second world war,” he said.
“Common sense would dictate that – hey, let’s build up Guam, let’s fight the war over there if we’re fighting the Chinese and the North Koreans, let’s fight it over there.”
Given Guam’s geopolitical importance to the United States, would President Trump heed the result of the plebiscite?
Mr Cruz said it would be within best interests of the US to do so.
“Not only strategically but also to show the world that the United States really is not an imperialistic country as its critics contend it to be especially in China and Russia,” he said.
“I hope that Donald Trump does hear our vote and I hope that it also expresses to him that it’s not that we’re clamouring for rebellion on Guam but that we desire to be treated equitably in the American tradition.”
The United States entered into a Compact of Free Association with the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands in 1986 and with Palau in 1994.