Signed by Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Tuvaluan Prime Minister Kausea Natano on 9 November 2023, the Australia-Tuvalu Falepili Union is a historic bilateral treaty. Termed a “groundbreaking agreement” by Albanese, the treaty encompasses a broad range of measures addressing security cooperation, human mobility and the increasing danger of climate change to the small island state of Tuvalu.

No country is better known for the challenges that climate change has posed to their existence than Tuvalu, an archipelago nation of only around 11,200 people. It is estimated that half the land area of Tuvalu’s capital, Funafuti, will be underwater by 2050. Two years ago, Tuvalu’s foreign minister made headlines for delivering his COP26 summit speech standing knee-deep in seawater, drawing attention to the low-lying nation’s position at the frontlines of climate change. The bilateral deal with Australia may present a lifeline for Tuvaluans if current climate trends continue. 

What does the treaty entail?

The Falepili Union comprises three main “areas of cooperation” — climate change, human mobility and security. Collaboration on these issues is based on the Tuvaluan word ‘Falepili’, meaning “good neighbourliness, care and mutual respect.

Closely aligned with this focus on partnership, the union proposes ways to tackle Tuvalu’s climate-related challenges whilst also addressing the wishes of its citizens to remain on their own land where possible. The treaty points to “recent technological developments” in combatting sea-level rise, which may include Australian support with actions such as artificial island building. Albanese also committed an additional A$16.9 million to the Tuvalu Coastal Adaptation Project (TCAP), which is working to expand the land around the island by a total of six percent and fortify the coastline to protect key infrastructure.

As well as developmental support, a key pillar of the treaty is Canberra’s opening of a “special human mobility pathway.” This pathway will allow up to 280 Tuvaluan citizens each year to live, study and work in Australia with access to key services such as health and education support. Coined “mobility with dignity,” the corridor provides resettlement opportunities for Tuvaluans facing growing climate risks and difficult choices, while simultaneously boosting people-to-people links between the two nations.

However, it is the agreement’s provisions for collective peace and security that have garnered the most attention. In the treaty, Australia pledges to aid Tuvalu in the face of any significant natural disaster, health pandemic or military threat and Tuvalu agrees to Australian overflight and access to Tuvalu’s territory. Perhaps most significantly, Tuvalu also pledges to “mutually agree” with Australia before the nation makes “any partnership, arrangement or engagement with any other State or entity on security and defence-related matters.” This has been widely interpreted as providing Australia with effective veto power over Tuvalu’s security arrangements with other countries.

It is important to note that there is significant controversy in Tuvalu and across the region over the treaty and the reported lack of public consultation on its terms. Tuvalu’s Prime Minister and other senior Tuvaluan officials have disputed that Australia has veto power over security agreements, arguing that the language of the treaty is only about consultation. With the Tuvaluan opposition leader campaigning strongly against the treaty ahead of Tuvalu’s upcoming election in January, the Falepili Union’s longevity – and the final form it will take – remains to be seen.

What are the treaty’s implications for the Indo-Pacific region?

Beyond ethical arguments as to whether Australia, the Pacific’s largest land mass and one of its largest polluters, has a responsibility to support Pacific Island nations in the face of growing climate threats, the treaty holds great geopolitical significance, against the backdrop of intensifying strategic competition.

The agreement has essentially aligned Tuvalu with Australia, restricting Tuvalu from any future security partnerships with other organisations or states deemed inimical to Australia’s national interest. Competition for exerting influence in the Pacific is fierce, and this deal shifts Tuvalu away from Beijing, which has had only a muted reaction to the signing of the deal. China managed to secure an agreement with the Solomon Islands in 2022 but has thus far proved unsuccessful in appealing to the majority of Pacific Island nations.

The US commitment to collaboration with the Pacific Islands remains strong, and it has described the deal as a “positive response” to climate issues. During the recent US-Pacific Island Forum (PIF) Leaders’ Summit in Washington, President Biden reaffirmed his dedication to creating “a resilient Pacific region of peace, harmony, security, social inclusion, and prosperity.” Just last year the Biden administration unveiled the ambitious US Pacific Partnership Strategy, the first of its kind, which announced plans to provide an additional US$810 million in funding to the Pacific Islands. This new chapter in the Tuvalu-Australia relationship will no doubt be welcomed by the United States, as US allies and partners seek to strengthen their ties with the region.

The Falepili Union could well set a precedent for future deals with Pacific nations that are both climate-conscious and security aware.