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Australia’s ‘groundbreaking’ treaty with Tuvalu

Australia has just announced a new security guarantee with Tuvalu, a developing island nation in the Pacific region. The Australian-Tuvalu Falepili Union treaty will not only allow for ‘special visas’ for those displaced by rising sea-levels in the country, it will also hold Australia responsible for acting on the requests of its new partner — namely, to respond to the increasing threat of major natural disasters, pandemics and military aggression against Tuvalu.

Tuvalu is a collection of nine low-lying islands, situated roughly halfway between Australia and Hawaii. It is also one of the world’s most at-risk countries from climate change. The mechanism will initially offer up to 280 visas a year, chosen by ballot. This means that within four years, one tenth of Tuvalu’s population of 11,426 could be relocated to Australia. It may not seem like a lot, but in lacking strong links to the big metropolitan countries, Tuvalu does not have enough migration opportunities.

The agreement comes at a time when China is expanding its economic and military presence in the Pacific, much to the chagrin of Australia and the US. The two were taken by surprise when Beijing struck a pact with the Solomon Islands, looking to expand its policing ties and infrastructure projects. This was of undeniable concern to the Australian defense establishment, indicating that the Falepili Union is more than a gesture of goodwill and recognition of Tuvalu’s looming disappearance.

Tuvalu is of great strategic significance for Western powers in the Pacific, making this new treaty the most important agreement with a Pacific Island nation. Even more so if it is true that China is seeking similar security arrangements with Pacific nations like Kiribati, as it already has with the Solomon Islands. Additionally, Tuvalu is one of just 13 countries that enjoys formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, and has turned down China’s propositions in the past. Taiwanese leadership has, unsurprisingly, welcomed Australia’s initiative and supports the potential for further agreements with other Pacific Island nations.

So far, the public response from other Pacific nations, including the Solomon Islands, has been positive; New Zealand and the US have also expressed support. But, as always, there remain questions.

Firstly, there are concerns about whether the treaty could erode Tuvalu’s sovereignty. For instance, the agreement gives Australia veto power over Tuvalu's security agreement with other nations. Further, while the residency offers allow some citizens to relocate to Australia, the document emphasises Tuvalu’s desire to continue living in its territory where possible.

Australia is right in supporting Tuvalu’s plight against the existential threat of climate change. But is it enough to simply offer an evacuation route to Australia, while continuing to put petroleum exploration at the top of the government’s priority list? Indeed, there is nothing in the document about curbing Australian coal and gas developments.

Then, there’s the question of how China will respond to the treaty. It’s evident that, by positioning Australia as Tuvalu’s primary security partner, the pact is a move to counter Beijing’s influence in the Pacific. One of Australia’s primary objectives has long been to ensure that no major powers with clashing interests make significant inroads in the Pacific region. This is precisely what Beijing has been striving for, for years. With the Solomon Islands deal, China’s nearest military base could inch to within 1500 km from Australia’s shores. 

Solomon Islands’ PM Manasseh Sogavare says that there is no prospect of a Chinese base; we will see if this changes as he continues to accommodate Xi Jinping while denigrating Australia and the US.

When asked about the Australia-Tuvalu agreement, Chinese spokesman for Foreign Affairs Wang Wenbin said China had hopes for ‘all countries to be able to enhance friendly cooperation with Pacific Island countries’. However, it is likely that the deal will be seen as another dimension of US-led intimidation, especially since Australia is a member of the two US-led blocs that China considers a threat (the nuclear submarine alliance Aukus, and the Quad.).

Australia and Tuvalu’s elevated partnership was requested by the latter ‘to safeguard the future of Tuvalu’s people, identity and culture’. As the effects of climate change worsen, Australia cannot content itself with providing a pathway for the displaced; it must work to ensure that its actions do not contribute to their displacement.

Image: AlboMP/via X

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