Last week, Australia announced a new treaty with the small island nation of Tuvalu in the South Pacific. The agreement between the two governments established a “Falepili union”, named after the Tuvaluan concept of good neighborliness. For now, the two main practical consequences of this treaty are enhanced security cooperation and a new migration pathway for Tuvaluans.
Tuvalu is one of the smallest sovereign nations in the world. All of its nine islands are low-lying, which means they are increasingly threatened by climate change-related sea level rise. In September 2023, Tuvalu updated its constitution to ensure its statehood remains in place even if the islands are submerged and the nation loses all of its physical territory.
Tuvalu may be preparing for the worst, but this outcome is not yet recognized as inevitable. While legislators work on securing a sovereign future for a potentially landless Tuvalu, there are ongoing land reclamation projects that may help reduce the negative effect of climate change on the islands’ land area.
According to the text of the new treaty, Australia will provide assistance to Tuvalu in response to major natural disasters, public health emergencies and military aggression against the Polynesian nation. This comes with a caveat: the agreement also states “Tuvalu shall mutually agree with Australia any partnership, arrangement or engagement with any other state or entity on security and defense-related matters.”
The document then goes on to list such matters, which include defense, policing, border protection, cyber security and critical infrastructure such as ports, telecommunications and energy infrastructure.
The migration-related part of the treaty says Australia will arrange a special “human mobility pathway” for Tuvalu citizens wishing to live, study and work in Australia. The document does not provide a detailed description of this migration program, but The Guardian cited a quota of 280 Tuvaluan immigrants per year.
Tuvaluans already enjoy preferential immigration treatment in another major Pacific nation, New Zealand. Last year, Immigration New Zealand raised the Pacific Access Category Resident Visa quota for Tuvalu citizens from 75 to 150 a year. Combined with the new pathway to residency in Australia, this means at least 430 Tuvaluans will be able to emigrate every year.
Last week, Tuvalu’s prime minister, Kausea Natano, met with his Australian counterpart, Anthony Albanese, in the Cook Islands. After three days of talks, they held a press conference. Among other things discussed there, Natano said the new migration system under the Falepili Union Treaty would be designed to avoid a brain drain. With 430 potential emigrants a year and Tuvalu’s entire population being under 12 thousand people, this claim seems somewhat dubious.
Countering Chinese influence
While discussing the security part of the treaty, Natano mentioned that Tuvaluan officials have been approached by Chinese diplomats seeking increased ties with the Polynesian country. Along with Nauru, Palau and the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu remains one of the four South Pacific nations that recognize Taiwan and maintain no diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.
Australia’s interest in enhanced security cooperation with Tuvalu may be explained by its desire to counter the growing Chinese influence in the region. Over the past few years, two South Pacific nations, Kiribati and Solomon Islands, have switched their diplomatic support from Taipei to Beijing.
In Solomon Islands, the government’s decision was met with protest demonstrations which eventually turned violent, with rioters attacking Chinese-owned businesses in the nation’s capital, Honiara. Australian and US officials have expressed worries that China may want to establish a military base in Solomon Islands. Later, Solomon Islands PM Manasseh Sogavare ruled out this possibility.
The Federated States of Micronesia’s ex-president, David Panuelo, has warned other Pacific nations’ leaders that China has been spying on Micronesian officials, offering bribes to some of them and supporting secessionist movements across the nation. Australia’s recent success in Tuvalu and ongoing diplomatic battle for Vanuatu seem to be a response to China’s similar behavior in these countries.
Allegations of neocolonialism
Commenting on the new treaty between Australia and Tuvalu, Marshallese researcher and climate change activist Atina Schutz called it “very familiar”, comparing it to the Compact of Free Association between her country and the United States.
Along with its neighbors, Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands are usually regarded as an associated state, i.e. one that cedes some of its powers to a larger nation. The same label is often applied to Niue and the Cook Islands, self-governing nations within the Realm of New Zealand. Unlike the three associated states in Micronesia, they are not UN member states.
The Compact of Free Association allows the US to maintain a military presence in the three Micronesian nations and to demand land from their governments for operating bases. Militaries of other countries cannot engage in any cooperation with Palau, the FSM and the Marshalls without America’s permission.
In their recent article for the Toda Peace Institute, Tuvaluan researcher Taukiei Kitara and Australian geographer Carol Farbotko claimed there was little to no public consultation with Tuvalu’s population before PM Natano rushed to sign the treaty with Australia.
“If Australia really understood fale pili, Tuvaluans would have been offered a migration opportunity with no expectation that Australia would gain geopolitically. This purported solution for Tuvaluans, presented to the casual observer to be some form of climate justice, we see as an insidious form of colonialism,” they added.
Indeed, Australia’s geopolitical gains in Tuvalu make the new treaty similar to the Compact of Free Association. One might even say that Tuvalu, too, has become an associated state. All of the associated states in the South Pacific show unusually high emigration rates: 81% in Niue, 63% in the Cook Islands, 34% in the FSM, 31% in Palau and 27% in the Marshalls. For now, Tuvalu’s emigration rate is substantially lower: only 19% of Tuvaluans live outside their ancestral islands.
If 430 people leave indefinitely every year as the new quotas suggest, Tuvalu will be empty in under 30 years – well before its predicted submersion. Does this mean that both Australian and Tuvaluan officials secretly believe saving the islands from sea level rise is a lost cause? Is the new mobility program a way to make the evacuation of Tuvalu’s entire population slow and seemingly voluntary? It may be too early to make such bold claims, but this scenario seems more than worrying, especially when local research suggests most Tuvaluans do not want to leave.
Over the course of the last 50 years, almost a dozen South Pacific nations have acquired independence from their former metropoles. Now, with the pressure of climate change and renewed geopolitical rivalries, some of them seem to be losing parts of their sovereignty – and their indigenous populations.