What you need to know about Australia's deal with Tuvalu: 'The great game is on'

The announcement comes as Australia and China tussle for influence in the Pacific.

The Albanese government will create a new special visa category for the small Pacific island nation of Tuvalu, giving up to 280 people per year Australian residency. The move is ostensibly about offering refuge for residents of the climate-change affected country, but China is also the elephant in the room.

What has happened?

  • The Australia-Tuvalu Falepili Union treaty was signed on the Cook Islands on Friday during the 52nd Pacific Islands Forum. It responds to Tuvalu's concerns about climate change and Australia's desire to firm up security deals across the region as China also looks to expand its influence.

  • The agreement comes after China signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands in 2022, a move that unnerved Australia and the United States.

  • Tuvalu is one of the most vulnerable nations to the impacts of extreme weather and rising sea levels caused by global warming. Other Pacific nations have historical ties with larger countries, for instance, French Polynesia and France, and the Marshall Islands and the United States, but before its pact with Australia, Tuvalu was seen to be going it alone.

  • Under the bilateral treaty, Australia will help Tuvalu respond to national disasters, pandemics, and military aggression. Tuvalu is also required to “mutually agree with Australia” if it wants to engage with other countries on any new security and defence matters. This means if China comes knocking offering military help, Tuvalu will have to consult with Australia first.

Could a new deal with Tuvalu inflame Australia's delicate relationship with China?
Could a new deal with Tuvalu inflame Australia's delicate relationship with China?

🗣️ What they said

Foreign minister Penny Wong told ABC: “It is about Australia saying to the region and to Tuvalu, we are a genuine, reliable partner and when we say we are part of the Pacific family, we mean it.”

Opposition defence spokesman Andrew Hastie told Sky News: “There is a geopolitical contest ongoing in the Indo-Pacific region, the great game is on”.

Oxfam Australia chief executive Lyn Morgain told Yahoo: “Like our Pacific counterparts, we would strongly be saying we need to look at the causes of (climate change), not simply offering to assist when things go awry.”

ANU professor of International Security and Intelligence John Blaxland told ABC: “This is a ground breaking union ... this is quite extraordinary. There's great power contestation afoot and we need to work with our neighbours collaboratively.”

Climate Council senior researcher Dr Wesley Morgan told Yahoo: “The agreement is certainly an acknowledgment that climate change is an existential threat for low-lying atolls… but Australia has avoided any obligation to stop its contribution to the problem by adding fuel to the fire and explaining fossil fuel exports.”

🗓️ What happens next?

  • China has remained relatively quiet since the Australia-Tuvalu Falepili Union was announced. But the security aspect of the deal is expected to do little to ease tensions between the superpower and Australia.

  • Last week's meeting between Albanese and China's leader Xi Jinping was seen to be a success, and Australian farmers had hoped it could lead to trade restrictions on Australian products being removed. It is unclear if the Tuvalu deal could slow the process down.

  • By 2050, it's projected much of low-lying Tuvalu will be under the average high tide, according to analysis by NASA. This means critical infrastructure will likely be destroyed by waves, tides and storms.

  • Australia is bidding to co-host the COP31 climate talks in 2026 with other Pacific nations, but it has received criticism about its ongoing support of fossil fuel projects.

💬 Conversation starter

Kiribati will likely be the first nation lost to climate change as its 32 atolls have a maximum elevation of just four metres above sea level. It has purchased a 20 square kilometre parcel of land on Fiji’s Vanua Levu island which it may use for relocation purposes.

Australia is a signatory to the Boe Declaration, which acknowledges climate change is “the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific”.

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