November 12, 2023 | The Sunday Guardian

Australia: Neo-imperialist or climate change saviour?

Australia gets a remarkable set of rights from the Pacific island country of Tuvalu in exchange for things it can mostly find a reason to not do if it wants.
November 12, 2023 | The Sunday Guardian

Australia: Neo-imperialist or climate change saviour?

Australia gets a remarkable set of rights from the Pacific island country of Tuvalu in exchange for things it can mostly find a reason to not do if it wants.

Australia and the Pacific island country of Tuvalu have entered into an agreement that seems to
give Australia extensive and exclusive defence and security rights in Tuvalu. This includes the
possibility of invoking “security” in ways that could give Australian companies competitive
advantage, and could even result in Australia vetoing activity by the U.S. military.
The Australia-Tuvalu Falepili Union treaty reads in part: “Tuvalu shall mutually agree with
Australia any partnership, arrangement or engagement with any other State or entity on security
and defence-related matters. Such matters include but are not limited to defence, policing, border
protection, cyber security and critical infrastructure, including ports, telecommunications and
energy infrastructure.”

Meanwhile, 280 Tuvaluans, out of a population of around 12,000, get to migrate to Australia
each year (Tuvalu is a low-lying island nation with serious concerns about the effects of sea level
rise and the agreement is often being framed in the media as a benevolent Australia helping out
with climate change).

But the relocation comes with a catch. “To support the implementation of the pathway, Tuvalu
shall ensure that its immigration, passport, citizenship and border controls are robust and meet
international standards for integrity and security and are compatible with and ACCESSIBLE TO
Australia.” (Emphasis added.)

Additionally, Australia says, if asked, it shall, “in accordance with its international law
obligations, international commitments, domestic processes and capacity” (note all the potential
reasons not to do so), assist Tuvalu with natural disasters, a public health emergency of
international concern and military aggression against Tuvalu.

To do that, “The Parties shall enter into an instrument to set out the conditions and timeframes
applicable to Australian personnel operating in Tuvalu’s territory.” And “In addition to the
Parties’ rights and freedoms under international law, provided that advance notice is given by
Australia, Tuvalu shall provide Australia rights to access, presence within, and overflight of
Tuvalu’s territory, if the activities are necessary for the provision of assistance requested by
Tuvalu under this agreement.”

Australian Prime Anthony Minister Albanese called the deal “the most significant agreement
between Australia and a Pacific island nation ever”.


This is a remarkable set of rights given to Australia in exchange for things it can mostly find a
reason to not do if it wants. It’s worth comparing the agreement to what might seem like similar
ones between the United States and the Pacific island countries of Palau, Marshall Islands and
the Federated States of Micronesia.

Those agreements, known as the Compacts of Free Association (COFA), afford the U.S.
extensive and exclusive defense and security rights, including strategic denial, allowing it to veto
military activity with other countries. But the agreements are more balanced. For example, any
(non-criminal) citizen of those countries has the right to live and work in the U.S.

Additionally, under the Compacts, the United States has an “obligation to defend the Marshall
Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia [and Palau] and their peoples from attack or
threats.” Issues like “capacity” do not come into play.

Through the COFAs the U.S. also provides for a wide range of services and financial support to
the three countries, even including allocating them domestic U.S. post codes so postal charges to
and from the U.S. are considered domestic mail.

There is much to take issue with in the COFAs, but it is likely someone from one of those three
countries looking at what Australia was offering would raise an eyebrow. Or two.


Tuvalu is one of the dozen or so countries that recognizes Taiwan.

Its relative remoteness makes it—as in World War II when it became a key U.S. base—a
desirable strategic outpost. And the PRC is moving closer. In 2019, neighbouring Kiribati, site of
World War II battles Tarawa and Makin, switched recognition from Taiwan to China.

And, with the highest point in the country being under five meters, the government and people
have serious concerns about the country’s long-term environmental viability.

These, and other factors, mean Tuvalu is a target of concerted Chinese political warfare, while at
the same time feeling exposed and nearly existentially insecure.


Tuvalu diplomats have been mentioning for a while that they were looking for a “COFA-like”
agreement with a larger country. American officials knew it.

However, the Department of State already sometimes displays ill ease with the existing COFAs
and while, along with other initiatives, it is opening more embassies in the Pacific islands, it
seems not to want to make major moves.

At the same regional meeting that resulted in the Australia-Tuvalu agreement, the American
representative was reported to have said that the U.S. doesn’t want to force Pacific states to
choose between the U.S. and China. Of course, Tuvalu has already gone beyond that, choosing
Taiwan over China.

It would be helpful to see overt U.S. support for countries so willing to actually stand on the
front line of a free and open Indo-Pacific, but often U.S. Pacific islands policy is mediated via
regional organizations (in particular the Pacific Islands Forum) and/or delegated to Five Eyes
partners Australia and New Zealand.

In that context, Tuvalu’s outreach to Washington seems not to have resonated, and Tuvalu was
left to cut what deal it could.


In the meantime, Australia had been looking at this sort of thing for years. Former Australian
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd proposed in a 2019 article that, if climate change should render
Tuvalu, Kiribati and Nauru unlivable, the people of those countries could get Australian
citizenship. In exchange, the countries would enter into “formal constitutional condominium”.

Then Tuvalu Prime Minster Enele Sopoaga responded to the 2019 offer by saying, “The days of
that type of imperial thinking are over”. Of the current deal he said: “I certainly don’t want to see
Tuvalu used as a guinea pig to test out some funny ideas which are being floated around.”


It will be interesting to see if the Australia-Tuvalu agreement needs to be ratified by the
respective legislatures and what the people of Tuvalu think about it—it’s also a useful test of
what the locals actually think of the Australians.

Meanwhile, Albanese is implying that this might be a model for tailored deals with other states
in the region.

But this isn’t happening in a vacuum. Australia is trying to normalize trade relations with
Beijing, and Albanese arrived at the meeting where the deal with Tuvalu was signed almost
directly from China. This raises questions about if Australia will put its own economic development
above the security needs and policies of Tuvalu.

For example, it will be interesting to see how supportive Australia will be to Tuvalu continuing
relations with Taiwan as the PRC’s embassy in Canberra makes it clear how displeasing it is to
them. It will also be telling to see if there are PRC influence campaigns to derail the deal. If there
aren’t, be worried.

Additionally, Australia’s activities in other regional countries, such as Solomon Islands, will be
closely watched. Australia has claimed the position of being the primary non-PRC point of
contact for nations wishing to engage with the Solomons, sometimes even trying to insert itself
into what should be bilateral relations.

However, under its “watch” the administration of the pro-PRC Prime Minister of Solomon
Islands has delayed elections, spurned President Biden and blocked U.S. ships from port calls.
The leadership of Tuvalu is trying hard to provide a secure, honourable and free future for their
people. Let’s hope they get the partners they deserve.

Cleo Paskal is Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies and The Sunday Guardian Special Correspondent. Grant Newsham is a retired U.S. Marine Colonel and the author of When China Attacks.


China Indo-Pacific Military and Political Power