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Australia: Neo-imperialist or climate change savior?

Australia gets a remarkable set of rights from 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 defense 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 defense-related matters. Such matters include but are not limited to defense, 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 Minister Anthony Albanese called the deal “the most significant agreement between Australia and a Pacific island nation ever."

Australia gets its own COFA 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 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. postcodes 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.

Why is Tuvalu doing it? 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, neighboring 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.

Whither, America?

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.

Australia's strategic denial envy

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 Minister 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 whether 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 the 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 the 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, honorable and free future for their people. Let’s hope they get the partners they deserve.

Cleo Paskal is a non-resident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and The Sunday Guardian special correspondent. Grant Newsham is a retired U.S. Marine colonel and the author of When China Attacks. This article is republished from the Sunday Guardian with permission from the authors.

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