Home » Australia increases financial support to Tuvalu in face of competition with China

Australia increases financial support to Tuvalu in face of competition with China

Australia and Tuvalu have declared there are only a “narrow set of circumstances” where the federal government might trigger a contentious part of the Falepili Union which allows Canberra to veto security arrangements struck by the Pacific Island nation.

Both nations have released a new explanatory memorandum on the landmark migration and security pact during a bipartisan trip to the country by Foreign Minister Penny Wong and her Coalition counterpart Simon Birmingham.

Senator Wong also announced $110 million in development initiatives for Tuvalu, including $50 million for Tuvalu’s first undersea telecommunications cable, an additional $19 million for coastal adaptation and $10 million in direct budget support.

The foreign minister told a large audience in the capital Funafuti that Australia’s commitments under the Falepili Union were an “expression of our sincerity, an embodiment of our commitment to this partnership”.

Penny Wong meets with her Tuvalu counterpart Paulson Panapa.  (Supplied: Department of Foreign Affairs)

“The Falepili Union is about our collective sovereignty, safeguarding our future and supporting the people of Tuvalu to stay and thrive in your homeland,” she said.

“These steps we are taking together – they represent steps Australia has taken with no other country.”

Under the agreement, Australia has promised to bolster Tuvalu’s coastal defences and open a resettlement pathway to 280 citizens every year, recognising that the low-lying nation faces an increasingly uncertain future in the face of climate change and rising seas.

Australia has also extended a security guarantee to Tuvalu, promising to come to its aid if it faces military aggression, a humanitarian disaster or a global pandemic.

But the agreement also says Australia would have to “mutually agree” to any security arrangements that Tuvalu wants to strike with other countries.

That has drawn criticism from some politicians in Tuvalu, with former prime minister and opposition MP Enele Sopoaga accusing Australia of trashing the Pacific nation’s sovereignty.

Woman and man sitting in chairs.

Penny Wong and Simon Birmingham meet with Paulson Panapa.  (Supplied: Department of Foreign Affairs)

The explanatory memorandum released on Thursday by both countries stresses there is only a “narrow set of circumstances for third-party cooperation” which might cause concern and trigger that clause.

“In the context of regional security dynamics, the primary considerations would be risks posed to Tuvalu’s and Australia’s sovereignty and security and our ability to meet our obligations under the treaty,” it says.

It also stresses that Tuvalu would not have to consult with Australia over any security arrangements it strikes with other Pacific Island nations.

Analysts say the most likely scenario that might trigger consultation or a potential veto would be if a future government in Tuvalu decided to recognise China and then tried to strike a security or policing agreement with Beijing.

Three people wear floral headdresses.

Penny Wong says Australia has committed $110 million in its national budget to Tuvalu.(Supplied: Department of Foreign Affairs)

At the moment Tuvalu maintains ties with Taiwan rather than China, with the Prime Minister Feleti Teo committing to maintain that relationship – but there has been persistent speculation that the country might make the switch to Beijing in the future.

Both countries have made it clear that nothing in the agreement would prevent Tuvalu from switching diplomatic recognition if it chooses to do so.

Mr Teo was one of the eminent Tuvalu citizens who helped advise the previous government on the agreement and has spruiked the benefits of the pact for his country, saying it will help his country build up coastal defences while providing those who wish to leave with a “dignified” path to life in Australia.

The explanatory memorandum says that those who resettle in Australia will enjoy additional benefits and rights, being granted “indefinite permanent residency, with freedom for unlimited travel to and from Australia”.

It also says the initial annual allocation of up to 280 visas “could be mutually adjusted each program year”.

Mr Teo has also acknowledged that people in the Pacific nation weren’t sufficiently consulted ahead of the agreement first being signed by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and his predecessor Kausea Natano, and has launched a new education campaign on the pact.

Two women shake hands.

Penny Wong says Australia will support Tuvalu in a humanitarian disaster, a pandemic or in the event of attack.(Supplied: Department of Foreign Affairs)

The two countries are both planning to ratify the pact this year, but the explanatory memorandum says Australia will need to help Tuvalu modernise its border and immigration controls before the new migration pathway can be opened.

It says the new pathway should become active “around nine months after entry into force of the treaty”.

Tess Newton Cain from the Griffith Asia Institute said the explanatory memorandum seemed aimed at addressing concerns which Mr Teo raised about consultation ahead of the agreement being signed.

But she said that it still wasn’t entirely clear whether Australia was solely intent on trying to head off any potential security arrangements between Tuvalu and China, or whether the scope of the agreement went further.

“Whilst it appears to narrow the parameters I don’t know that it does completely,” Dr Newton Cain said.

“For example, what are the implications or expectations associated with Tuvalu signing up to the Belt and Road Initiative, if they were to go down the track of shifting their diplomatic arrangements from Taiwan to China?”

She also said there was a risk the new development initiatives announced by the government could “distort” the aid budget in order to buttress Australia’s position in Tuvalu.

“This latest statement is promising more development assistance to Tuvalu in next year’s budget than was promised to Vanuatu (population: 300,000) in last year’s,” she said.

“It is hard to see how this cannot distort the aid budget and there will be concerns that important activities will be cut in order to satisfy the strategic anxieties of the foreign policy and national security community in Canberra.”

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