By Ravindra Singh Prasad
SUVA, Fiji | 16 November 2023 (IDN) — A new treaty deal announced by Australia and the tiny Pacific Island state of Tuvalu during this month Pacific Island Forum (PIF) in Cook islands may signal a new strategy of Australia and its western allies to counter China in the region. But, this may also raise some eyebrows among independently minded Pacific leaders.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announce on Friday (Nov 10) along with his Tuvalu counterpart Kausea Natano at the conclusion of the 52nd PIF summit that the two countries have agreed to establish a ‘Falepili Union’—which in the Tuvalu language means good neighbourliness, care and mutual respect.
In fact, the Article 1 of the agreement published in the website of the Australian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) gives the main purpose of this agreement as:
a. establish a Falepili Union based on values of good neighbourliness, care and mutual respect and elevate the Parties’ relationship to one which is advanced, integrated and comprehensive;
b. provide the citizens of Tuvalu with a special human mobility pathway to access Australia underpinned by a shared understanding and commitment to ensuring human mobility with dignity; and
c. protect and promote each Party’s and the Parties’ collective security and sovereignty.
Albanese was at pains to emphasise that the deal was offered to Australia by Tuvalu and described it as a “ground breaking agreement”, while Natano called it “a beacon of hope” and “not just a milestone but a giant leap forward in our joint mission to ensure regional stability, sustainability and prosperity”.
Tuvalu is a nation of 13 atolls in Central Pacific Ocean with a population of 11,200 and they have repeatedly called for greater action from major greehouse gas emmitting nations like Australia to stop the islands getting drowned out within 30-40 years time. Australia has also pledged funding to help Tuvalu adapt to climate change, including A$16.9m ( US$10.7) to expand the landmass of its main island by 6 percent.
Tuvalu is one of 4 Pacific Island nations that have diplomatic relations with Taiwan and use the Australian dollar in their daily transactions.
The deal was kept under wrap by both countries and when it was announced in the Cook Island capital Raratonga, the press corp was not given a fullcopy of the agreement. But since then DFAT has released the full text on their website.
Up to 280 people per year will be granted the new visas, which will allow them to “live, work and study” in Australia. But, they will not come as refugees and some of the details of the arragements are yet to be worked out. It is not clear what migrant status they will hold in Australia.
In return Tuvalu has agreed it will not enter into defence pacts with any other countries without Australia’s approval. Australia has agreed to defend Tuvalu from any foreign “security” threats – where security is broadly defined even including infrastructure and development projects. They have also agreed to allow Australian forces to be based there if necessary.
“It will be regarded as a significant day in which Australia acknowledged that we are part of the Pacific family, and with that comes the responsibility to act,” Albanese told reporters on Friday. “The new treaty —known as the Falepili Union—is the “most significant” agreement between Australia and a Pacific country ever,” he added.
Professor Jane McAdam, Director of the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, University of NSW in Sydney describes last week’s agreement as the world’s first bilateral agreement on climate mobility. “Australia’s offer of climate migration to Tuvalu residents is groundbreaking” she argues, adding “historically, most Pacific visa programs in Australia (and the region) have been tied to labour mobility. And none has specifically referenced climate change as a driving rationale … the visa may potentially provide a humanitarian pathway for people who want—or need— to move”.
The Guardian reported that Australia’s minister for the Pacific, Pat Conroy, visited Tuvalu in August and Natano provided him with a submission to pass to Albanese outlining the proposal. Negotiations then proceeded quickly, culminating in Friday’s announcement.
But, TV New Zealand Pacific Correspondent Barabara Deaver disagrees, saying that Tuvalu did not ask for such a treaty. “I know for a fact Tuvalu did not ask for this particular agreement, which Australia is claiming. Tuvalu has asked many countries for help and Australia saw an opportunity and took it’” she said in an article News1 website.
Deaver argues that contrary to what the two leaders say, the ‘Falepili Union’ does not work for both countries. “(It)should really have been called the Australia Defence Treaty in Tuvalu. Because that’s exactly what it is,” she notes. “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”.
“Controlling the narrative is something that Australia is extremely good at,” notes Deaver. “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”.
Deavers points out that it is their resources – the sea and what it yields and its strategic location in the west central Pacific Ocean- that Australia is interested in, not necessary about the welfare of the people of Tuvalu. “These resources are valuable to big foreign countries as geopolitical tension between China and western allies, namely the US and Australia, play out”.
Canberra has previously encountered resistance from some Pacific nations, including Vanuatu, to attempts to sign them up to anti-China security arrangements. In August, Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakaua was ousted after signing an “enhanced strategic engagement” between the two countries, which potentially provided vast scope for a range of military activities directed against China.
In January next year, Tuvalu will be holding elections and there is a likelihood of a change in government that may not support the intrusive neo-colonial aspects of the agreement, which may need parliamentary approval to implement.
All these comes against the background of China’s increasing involvement in the Pacific. The Asian giant has offered so-called “soft loans” to Fiji, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. Australia and its mainstream media have made a huge hue and cry about a deal Solomon Island has signed with China for security assistance claiming that it is a secret deal to establish a naval base in the Pacific.
Last week China sent a contingent of Police personal and security equipment including drones to provide law and order assistance during the South Pacific Games starting there later this week. Under a defense treaty signed with a previous Solomon Island government, Australia said if security is needed for the games, they can provide it.
Adam Wolfenden, the Co-Deputy Coordinator of the Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG) told IDN that looking at this deal Australia hasn’t really addressed the Pacific leaders and the peoples’ concerns on addressing climatic security threats. “(If you are to) assess any agreements by Australia in the name of security (you could see) that aren’t lead by their actions to address their contribution to climate change,” he argues. [IDN-InDepthNews]
Photo: Australia’s prime minister Anthony Albanese and Tuvalu’s prime minister Kausea Natano signed a treaty known as the ‘Falepili Union’. Credit: Anthony Albanese. Source: RNZ
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