Australia’s deal with Tuvalu is not about climate justice, say experts

PM Albanese and former PM Natano holds signed treaty.

Australia’s offer to Tuvalu of 280 permanent residency visas every year as part of a new treaty between the two countries, is being criticised as an Australian strategic security initiative in the guise of climate justice.

Touted as a new ‘human mobility pathway’ promising ‘human mobility with dignity’, the agreement was signed by Tuvalu Prime Minister, Kausea Natano, and Australian counterpart, Anthony Albanese at the Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting in the Cook Islands last week.

Dr Anna Powles, senior lecturer in international security at Massey University, commented on how the Tuvaluan perspective on the treaty “has been largely absent from media reporting/analysis so far.”

Powles said on X, formerly known as Twitter last night, it was clear that there was “little to zero public consultation (contrary to [the] Tuvalu PM’s claim). This matters hugely.”

Quoting Tuvaluan academics Taukiei Kitara and Carol Farbotko that the treaty “is not about climate justice. The treaty is about security,” Powles pointed to the Grand Compact proposal officially mooted in Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, which she said, recommended integrating Pacific countries into Australian and New Zealand economies and security institutions. She said the White Paper stated this was: “essential to the long-term stability and economic prospects of the Pacific.”

“Fast forward to 2023,” says Powles, “Australia is deeply concerned about a persistent and escalating Chinese presence in Solomon Islands following the 2022 Solomons-China security deal. The treaty with Tuvalu builds on Australia’s hub and spokes security system of bilateral treaties.”

“Specifically, it is about strategic denial and spheres of influence. It gives Australia veto over Tuvalu’s security arrangements with any other state or entity (i.e. commercial actor).”

She said the Treaty was signed at the Forum leaders’ meeting “in part to give it a veneer of regional legitimacy.”

“This was an effective strategy. Pacific leaders were unlikely to publicly criticise Tuvalu’s decisions. The existential threat Tuvalu faces from climate change is shared across the Pacific.”

Powles says the level of domestic support for the treaty in Tuvalu is unclear due to the lack of public consultation.

“Its popularity may be tested at the polls when Tuvalu votes in a new government in January 2024.”

Leading regional journalist Barbara Dreaver said on X that contrary to what Australia had claimed, she knew for a fact that Tuvalu “did not ask for the agreement”.

“Tuvalu has asked many countries for help and Australia saw an opportunity and took it.”

“The Australian line about it being “honoured to respond” and “the foresight of the Government of Tuvalu in seeking it (the treaty)” is nothing but a con job,” says Dreaver.

“Controlling the narrative is something that Australia is extremely good at. Tuvalu was ripe for the picking. The tiny islands are badly affected by the impacts of climate change and their coral atolls means they can’t grow anything there and the economy struggles.

“Their resources are the sea and what it yields and its strategic location – in the west central Pacific Ocean.

“These resources are valuable to big foreign countries as geopolitical tension between China and western allies, namely the US and Australia, play out.

Stephen Howes, director of Australia’s Development Policy Centre, a think tank for aid and development, hailed the the Tuvalu visa as a new milestone in the journey towards Pacific visa-free access.

“How important that milestone is depends on how much of a precedent the Tuvalu agreement is,” says Howes.

“Tuvalu is a country that uses the Australian dollar as its legal tender and that recognises Taiwan rather than mainland China. Asking it not to enter into a security agreement with China is to ask for not very much. Nauru is the same category as Tuvalu (uses the Australian dollar and recognises Taiwan), but the two other countries in the Pacific that recognise Taiwan already have a security agreement with the United States. It will be much harder to get countries that are already receiving aid from China, such as Kiribati, to agree only to receive “critical infrastructure” aid from the superpower if Australia gives consent (as the new treaty requires of Tuvalu).”

Howes says Nauru and Tuvalu are also similar in both being tiny, with populations of not much above 10,000.

“More visas will have to be offered to the other, larger Pacific Island countries to make them similarly attractive offers.”

However, Tuvaluan academics Taukiei Kitara and Carol Farbotko say the “purported solution for Tuvaluans”, presented to the casual observer as some form of climate justice, was “an insidious form of colonialism.”

“This is not the model of climate mobility that Tuvaluans, or others in climate-vulnerable places, deserve,” they said.

Writing for Japan’s Toda Peace Institute, Kitara and Farbotko said many Tuvaluans want to stay and adapt in Tuvalu, with research indicating that with adaptation measures, the habitability of atolls can continue into the 21st Century, despite rising sea levels.

Hence, the treaty with Australia “should not be interpreted as an indication that the worst-case scenario has arrived or is imminent.”

“An additional migration pathway is simply another way in which Tuvaluan people can diversify their livelihood options and access more resources for tackling climate change, such as by increased remittances and the gaining of skills through increased education and training opportunities. We expect the new migration pathway to Australia to operate circularly for many of those who do take it up, a continuation of participation by Tuvaluan workers in offshore employment over many decades: in the mines of Nauru and Banaba, in commercial seafaring, and in the labour mobility schemes of Australia and New Zealand.”

The academics said that despite these benefits for Tuvaluan people, the treaty does not deliver climate justice.

“We believe that the way the migration pathway is being constructed primarily as a climate solution is injurious to the Tuvaluan people who have long rejected labels such as ‘climate migrant’ or ‘climate refugee’, worrying that this will attract discrimination if they choose to move to Australia for work or study. Despite the best efforts of themselves and their government to reduce the country’s climate risk, the new treaty might result in a false signal to Tuvaluan people that their country is imminently unsafe to live in.

“In recent years, activists from Tuvalu and their low-lying neighbours in the Pacific have been calling for their sovereignty to be protected, not eroded, in a changing climate. Our gravest concerns about the treaty are that it sidesteps the important question of Australia’s commitment to phasing out fossil fuels and contains considerable rhetoric around respecting sovereignty, but quite clearly erodes Tuvalu’s sovereignty on issues of national security. From now on, Tuvalu must ‘mutually agree with Australia any partnership, arrangement or engagement with any other State or entity on security and defence-related matters.’”

Referring to the name of the treaty, they said Fale pili means “looking after your neighbour as if they are family.”

“The fale pili that we know—that we have experienced as a Tuvaluan family in Australia and Tuvalu, and that we have written about as academics—does not come with strings attached. If Australia really understood fale pili, Tuvaluans would have been offered a migration opportunity with no expectation that Australia would gain geopolitically.”