Tuvalu regains full sovereignty over security relations

Australia and Tuvalu released a joint statement May 9 announcing new commitments to improve security relations, and remove the veto power Australia previously had over the small island nation's security relations with other countries. The announcement concerned implementation and interpretation of the Falepili Union, a bilateral treaty entered into on Nov. 9, 2023, which expands upon the Australia-Tuvalu Security Partnership Memorandum of Understanding of 2017. "Falepili" is a Tuvaluan term for neighbors, which the treaty says "embodies the values underpinning the deeper partnership, including care and mutual respect."

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Tuvalu Prime Minister Feleti Teo announced in their joint media release that more than $110 million will be invested for the immediate priorities of Tuvalu. This includes $50 million to help Tuvalu secure its first undersea telecommunication cables, $19 million for the Tuvalu Coastal Adaptation Project (TCAP), and $15 million for a new National Security Coordination Center in Tuvalu

The TCAP, developed with the United Nations Development Program in 2017, is focused on adapting to the challenges from climate change and sea-level rise, already affecting the islands of Tuvalu. The Australia-Pacific Climate Partnership (APCP) finds that sea-level rise due to climate change will increase the impact of tropical cyclones, and will have an adverse effect on Tuvalu. In 2015, Category 5 tropical cyclone Pam caused a state of emergency in Tuvalu, damaging homes, contaminating water, and killing livestock.

According to the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade, "Australia shares the belief, as set out in the Boe Declaration of 2018, that climate change is the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific." The Boe Declaration builds on the 2000 Biketawa Declaration on regional security in the Pacific.

The new agreement also confirms the "security guarantee" between the two nations. The Explanatory Memorandum of the Falepili Union Between Tuvalu & Australia calls for Australia to provide assistance in the face of military aggression, humanitarian disaster, or pandemic. Australia is working with Tuvalu to develop a special pathway that will allow Tuvaluan citizens to reside and work in Australia, whether permanently or temporarily. According to ABC News, this is conceived as a "lifeline to escape rising seas and increased storm[s] that threaten their country."

The previous 2017 treaty gave Australia veto power over any security or defense agreement that Tuvalu sought to enter into with other countries. This raised critical questions over Tuvalu's sovereignty, and led to an amendment under Article 4(4) of the Falepili Union.

The Explanatory Memorandum notes the Falepili Union will not limit Tuvalu's sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence.

Tuvalu does not need permission from Australia before it starts to talk with other partners. Unlike some integrated partnership models, Australia does not have unqualified rights of access to Tuvalu's territory or airspace, nor the right to establish military areas in Tuvalu. Article 4(4) does not diminish Tuval's standing in global fora.

Tuvalu will be able to enter into diplomatic relations with other states and countries, implicitly including China. In January of this year during the national election, Tuvalu was contemplating switching its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China, according to ABC News.

From Jurist, May 10. Used with permission.

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