In a development that highlights the fast-evolving security environment of the Indo-Pacific, Australia has signed a pact with Tuvalu in the Pacific Islands which will provide a “special human mobility pathway”, or climate visas to Tuvaluans. However, Canberra will have to be consulted before Tuvalu approves any security arrangement with an external power. Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese hailed it as a “more integrated and comprehensive partnership”.
The increasing role of climate change, especially rising sea levels, is evident in geopolitics. As littoral states assume greater strategic significance, New Delhi may closely monitor the changing security situation and re-calibrate its engagement policy in the Pacific.
Australia’s security perspectives
The Pacific, where Australia has had traditional political influence, is increasingly becoming a theatre for large powers’ geopolitical rivalry. China and the Solomon Islands signed a security pact in 2022 that allows Beijing to set up a military base on the island territory. But this is not a standalone case. The US was granted 15-year extensive access to military facilities by Papua New Guinea in July. Washington is also negotiating the renewal of the Freely Associated States Agreement, signed in the 1980s, providing the US a right to military bases, with Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia and Palau.
The island nations have looked to China for development and infrastructure projects like roads. However, their security cooperation with Beijing alarms Australia and the US. On his recent visit to China, the leader of the Solomon Islands signed nine deals covering areas like policing cooperation, apart from the decision to upgrade their relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. China’s Huawei is already laying 5G network infrastructure and a Chinese state company will redevelop the port of Honiara.
Treaty with Tuvalu
Although Canberra has committed US$ 220 million for climate infrastructure in addition to the Coastal Adaptation project for land reclamation, its control over Tuvalu’s sovereign affairs would be substantial. The scope of Tuvalu’s security agreement with foreign countries, which requires Australia’s consent, extends to non-traditional security areas such as cybersecurity, telecommunications, critical infrastructure, ports, etc.
The agreement is seemingly of greater value to Australia as it would accept only 280 Tuvaluans per year, practically taking 40 years for all Tuvaluans to be rehabilitated. Any dispute may also not be referred to courts, tribunals or any third party for resolution. Naturally, not all Tuvaluans find these terms acceptable, as it is seen as an erosion of sovereignty. Some academics have pointed out potential implications like discrimination as a “climate refugee”, or perception of Tuvalu being imminently unsafe.
Australia’s comprehensive relationship with the Pacific Islands includes people-to-people and historical links, unlike China whose engagement is seen as much narrower with clear strategic objectives. This is the edge Australia has over Beijing, and Canberra should ensure it doesn’t lose it. Strategic engagements may continue to prevent the dependence of pacific states on China, but in a more benevolent fashion.
India’s role in the Pacific
India seeks to deter China’s aggressive activities by becoming entrenched in the regional security architecture of the Indo-Pacific. Even as the immediate neighbourhood is India’s primary sphere of strategic concern, it will be essential for New Delhi to prevent close strategic partners in the region, like the US, Australia, Japan and France, from becoming embroiled in a Pacific conflict. Such a conflict will divert their valuable resources, including military, economic, technological and academic, from advancing security cooperation in the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asian theatres. This can be highly detrimental to New Delhi’s long-term interests and global aspirations.
India’s current engagement with the region pivots on the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation, covering cooperation in areas like building climate resilience and renewable energy. India also imparts training and offers skill development, financing of medical infrastructure, and cooperation in digital and information technology. However, relations with Fiji, Kiribati, Tonga and Tuvalu are maintained through the High Commission in Suva, and relations with Vanuatu, Samoa, Cook Islands and Niue are maintained through the High Commission in Wellington, reflecting India’s limited diplomatic missions in the region.
Way ahead for regional security
The treaty takes the strategic involvement of large powers in the Pacific one step forward, in a first-of-its-kind resettlement-for-security arrangement. It remains to be seen whether this becomes the norm. Such a trend can make regional geopolitics a zero-sum game, and potentially hurt the agency of small island nations.
It is possible that such arrangements, while seemingly advantageous in the short term, may lead to apprehensions among Canberra’s close partners, and limit strategic alignment. It may also incite fears of neocolonialism among the island nations given the asymmetry in size and economies, thereby capping their cooperation and amplifying local resentment.
Australia realises its own geopolitical objectives in the stability of the Indo-Pacific and has shown commitment by engaging extensively with regional partners bilaterally and multilaterally. Therefore, any ensuing reservations will only cause avoidable constraints in greater strategic synchronisation. In the coming weeks, it may be important for Australia to take partners into confidence by increasing dialogue, and address formidable concerns regarding security agreements. For India, engagements in the Pacific may be expanded to include greater security cooperation and more diplomatic missions.
The writer is an analyst in Indo-Pacific geopolitics and Southeast Asian studies. He leads an independent policy and strategy consulting practice from New Delhi