Australia prime minister Anthony Albanese and Tuvalu prime minister Kausea Natano announced the Falepili Union agreement on November 10 at the Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting in the Cook Islands. (Photo: Anthony Albanese X account)

Australia is leveraging climate change to serve its selfish geopolitical interests in the Pacific, writes Professor Steven Ratuva.


As Pacific leaders look forward to attending COP28 in Dubai in a couple of weeks, there are serious issues in our region which will overshadow any potential positive outcomes of the global gathering.

One of these is the Australia-Tuvalu Falepili Union agreement where climate mobility has been used as political capital by Australia to serve its pro-US, anti-China geopolitical interest.

While this has been hailed by some as a glorious humanitarian gesture, the reality is far more complex.

Indeed, there’s reason to be cautious.

The crux of the agreement is that the people of Tuvalu can live in Australia, but in return, Tuvalu is essentially ceding part of its sovereignty to Australia.

To be fair, the Falepili agreement (“falepili” means good neighbourliness) has an undeniable humanitarian aspect to it. Article 3, for instance, refers to the “special human mobility pathway for citizens of Tuvalu to access Australia to live, study and work” — and to “access Australian education, health, and key income and family support”.

The agreement also explicitly acknowledges that Tuvaluans have “deep, ancestral connections to land and sea” and may not want to migrate. The term “dignity” is used to give a moral flavour to both those who wish to migrate and those who wish to stay.

This, no doubt, is a dream come true for many Tuvaluans whose livelihoods have been progressively inundated by climate-related calamities over the years.

Imperial thinking? 

But, after articulating all the usual rhetorical niceties about “climate cooperation” (Article 2) and “human mobility with dignity” (Article 3), the bombshell comes in Article 4 where the trade-off between the humanitarian gesture and Australia’s geostrategic interests are unashamedly enunciated.

Apart from the usual provision of humanitarian disasters, there is a really worrying, jaw-dropping provision:

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.

What this could mean is that Tuvalu as a sovereign state cannot, on its own, make decisions on its security interests across a whole range of areas including engagement with other countries, digital services, infrastructure development, communications and energy.

The phrase “not limited to” is key here because it provides an almost unrestricted licence for Australia to have a say in any social, economic, political aspect of Tuvalu society that could be deemed to be security-related. This could also mean unrestricted access to, and control over, Tuvalu’s sovereignty, including its 200-mile exclusive economic zone, under the rubric of “border protection”.

The implications of these are deep and worrying because Tuvalu may need to give up one of the most important components of a modern state — the sovereign rights and security over its territory, as encapsulated in Section 2 of the Tuvalu Constitution. This constitutional provision declares that “Tuvalu is a sovereign democratic state” with overall rights over “the territorial sea and inland waters as declared by law, the land beneath them, and the airspace above”.

This becomes a bigger constitutional issue as the legal status of Tuvalu’s sovereign state is being compromised. This is an internal political matter for Tuvalu to sort out, but the key issue here is that it has implications for other states in the Pacific seeking to engage in similar deals with Australia.

It’s important to note here that, under international law, the status of sovereign states is protected. As the UN Secretary-General, António Guterre, said at a meeting of the Forum for Small States in New York last year: “Territorial integrity and sovereignty are sacrosanct, for small states, just as for large.”

Australia prime minister Anthony Albanese and Tuvalu prime minister Kausea Natano announced the Falepili Union agreement on November 10 at the 52nd Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting in Rarotonga. (Photo: Anthony Albanese X account)

This Falepili agreement is really an applied version of a similar idea by former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, who suggested in 2019 that, as a strategy to adapt to climate change in the Pacific, Australia should offer citizenship for the people of Tuvalu, Kiribati and Nauru — and in exchange, Australia would control their seas, exclusive economic zones, and fisheries.

That suggestion was described by Tuvalu’s then prime minister, Enele Sopoaga, as “imperial thinking”. Tuvalu wasn’t prepared “to be subjugated under some sort of colonial mentor; those days are over.”

This hits the nail right on the head. Australia’s action as a leading regional power smacks of predatory imperial behaviour which isn’t welcome in this region in this day and age.

Let’s be clear here about the fact that there are already similar neo-colonial arrangements in the region.

For instance, the Compact of Free Association between the US and its former Micronesian territories (Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia and Palau) means citizens of the Micronesian states can live and work in the US, and in return, among other provisions, the US is responsible for their defence and can deploy its armed forces in compact areas.

And then there’s New Zealand’s arrangement with the Cook Islands and Niue (its so-called “realm” countries). Both are self-governing states in free association with New Zealand, and part of the deal is that New Zealand acts on behalf of the two states in the areas of foreign affairs and defence, but the New Zealand parliament doesn’t have the power to unilaterally pass any legislation relating to the two states.

In both these cases (US compact and New Zealand’s free association), there are longstanding historical developments and connections from the colonial period to today which continue to linger and link the countries concerned, but there have been moves in the past to do away with these neo-imperial arrangements.

The Falepili takes place at a time when there is increasing demand for decolonisation, justice and transparency. Also, it’s different from the US and New Zealand neo-colonial arrangements because Australia is leveraging climate change to serve its interests.

Lack of good faith

In the broader regional context, Australia seems to be dancing to the AUKUS tune to keep China’s hegemonic Belt and Road initiative at bay. It’s one form of regional imperial expansionism against another, using Pacific states as pawns.

As an Australian ally, the US would be happy too. Both China and the US have signed security and economic agreements with various Pacific countries, thus escalating regional competition and tension in an unprecedented way.

In the minds of many, the deal further reinforces Australia’s past reputation as a climate pariah state. It has ignored global pressure to cease production of coal, and during this month’s Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Rarotonga, it was instrumental in toning down the resolution on fossil fuel.

Anthony Albanese’s government came into power on a wave of climate change votes — and many, like me, initially had high hopes but this quickly turned to despair and anger as a result of its recent climate policies, including the Falepili deal.

There are other concerns. According to the agreement, something like 249 Tuvalu islanders will resettle in Australia annually. Theoretically speaking, after about 44 years, in just one generation, all 11,000 residents of Tuvalu will be gone.

What will happen to their land, identity and ancestral cultural heritage? Given its treatment of its own Indigenous population, Australia would be the last country to care about these. Will this mean the end of a country, a culture and a people? And will whatever is left in what is now Tuvalu become part of an expanded territory of Australia? Will Nauru, Kiribati and other Pacific states soon become part of this new Austra-Oceanic empire?

Because Australia is expected to acquire nuclear submarines under the AUKUS security alliance, will Tuvalu be converted into a nuclear submarine base?

The Australian government is morally obliged to respond to that question. We have to remember that countries in the region signed the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty in 1986, and this was endorsed anew in the Forum leaders meeting in Rarotonga just over a week ago.

The bigger ethical issue of climate justice also arises here. The deal in question undermines the sense of equity and justice Global South countries have been fighting for in recent years.

Taking advantage of the smallness and climate vulnerability of island states to serve strategic agendas and take away their sovereign rights is downright unethical. Thus, a major global priority which the United Nations and COP28 should now seriously be looking into is ensuring that the mana, integrity and sovereignty of small states are protected to avoid being victimised by the machinations of the big powers.

Climate mobility deals with Pacific Island states must be based on humanitarian considerations, not selfish geopolitical interests. By all means, Australia should allow Tuvalu climate migrants into Australia in good faith, and not at the cost of loss of their sacred sovereignty.


Steven Ratuva is an award-winning interdisciplinary Fijian scholar. He is Distinguished Professor and Pro-Vice Chancellor Pacific at the University of Canterbury, and the director of the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies. He also chairs the International Political Science Association research committee on climate security and planetary politics, and has other international, regional and national research leadership roles.

The opinions expressed in this article do not express the views of the University of Canterbury.

© E-Tangata, 2023

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