The Falepili Union and the question of Pacific sovereignty
24 Nov 2023|

The surprise signing of the Australia–Tuvalu Falepili Union agreement at the recent Pacific Islands Forum has been touted as a pathbreaking development in Australia’s Pacific relations. It is hugely significant, but, on closer inspection, this bespoke treaty may not be as original as many suppose.

Antedating the Falepili Union by more than four decades there is, in fact, another security treaty that could oblige Tuvalu to first clear with another state any request for an Australian military presence on Tuvaluan territory.

In addition to providing for more general security consultation, the 1979 US–Tuvalu Treaty of Friendship requires Tuvalu to consult with the US should any third party want access to Tuvalu for military purposes.

A contributing factor to the hype surrounding the Falepili Union was the regional gloss put on it by the public signing of the bilateral agreement at a Pacific Islands Forum meeting. The association of its security provisions with broader definitions of security in the forum’s 2018 Boe Declaration and 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent even had some echoes in the earlier agreement.

There was also a regional backdrop to the US–Tuvalu treaty, albeit more muted. Ostensibly, it was a bilateral pact to surrender American claims to four of Tuvalu’s nine islands asserted under the 1856 Guano Islands Act, which enabled US citizens to claim for the US islands that had commercial quantities of guano, a nitrogen-rich strategic resource.

However, Washington was anxious to remove an own-goal irritant of colonial claims that had virtually no validity, fearing that it could damage its dispute with the Pacific states over ownership of the region’s valuable tuna resources. Ceding all the relevant guano claims helped create a friendlier atmosphere that contributed to the successful negotiation of the South Pacific Tuna Treaty some eight years later.

Unsurprisingly, the US–Kiribati Treaty of Friendship concluded later in 1979 replicated many of the Tuvalu provisions given that the motivations were much the same. However, its language was rather more nuanced to reflect the greater geostrategic significance of Kiribati to the US. A key difference between the two agreements is that the Tuvalu treaty covers the whole of Tuvalu while the Kiribati treaty is more specific as to consultation on military use by third parties.

Article 2 of the Kiribati agreement limited general military consultation to the 14 islands over which the US was ceding claims, while Article 3 was more specific, almost presciently so, in echoing the language of Falepili. It stated that all the World War II American military facilities on three islands ‘shall not be made available to third parties for military purposes except with the agreement of the Government of the United States’.

While it is highly unlikely that Tuvalu will have any difficulty managing the obligations of both its security agreements, questions have been raised about the provisions of the Kiribati treaty.

China reportedly has wanted to upgrade the US-built airstrip on Kanton Island to modern international standards and is undertaking feasibility work at the request of Kiribati. Invariability, the dual-use potential of the airport upgrade has produced a tug-of-war over Article 3 and Beijing’s motives.

The US–Kiribati treaty suggests a partial rejoinder to some critics of the Falepili Union who have seized on Article 4(4) to assert that it has undermined ‘Pacific agency’ by tying Tuvaluan security to broader Australian military ambitions in the region. The first sentence of Article 4(4) states: ‘Tuvalu shall mutually agree with Australia any partnership, arrangement or engagement with any other State or entity on security and defence-related matters.’

If ‘mutually’ is read as to mean reciprocally, this provision might be interpreted to say that Tuvalu would have to agree to any Australian agreement that might affect Tuvaluan security or sovereignty. However, the Falepili Union is not a reciprocal security treaty. It is not expected to give Tuvalu any say on AUKUS or similar Australian agreements. Australia agrees to come to Tuvalu’s assistance if threatened, but Tuvalu has no positive obligation to come to Australia’s defence if the need arises.

The sweeping range of security subjects identified in the second sentence of Article 4(4) includes ‘defence, policing, border protection, cyber security and critical infrastructure, including ports, telecommunications and energy infrastructure’. This offers some clarity on the provision’s reach, perhaps, but it doesn’t resolve the dual-use question at the heart of the Kanton Island issue.

The perceived one-sidedness in the Falepili Union has led to accusations of neocolonialism. Others have portrayed the union as implying something along the lines of the compact of free association (COFA) status that exists between New Zealand and the Cook Islands and Niue or between the US and the Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands and Palau.

As written, the Falepili treaty doesn’t establish a COFA agreement with Australia, and there’s little to suggest that either party is committed to such a trajectory. Unlike the COFA states in the Pacific, Australia doesn’t have the variety of organic ties with Tuvalu, a British colony, that the COFA states developed over decades of colonial control and which were crafted to provide a supported transition to self-government.

That’s not to say that some of these administrative, economic and social ties couldn’t be created over time between Australia and Tuvalu. For the moment, the agreement provides for establishing a special visa arrangement initially capped to allow up to 280 Tuvaluans access to Australia with a proviso that numbers could be expanded if changed environmental conditions required more or faster entry requests.

The Tuvaluans are well aware of the previous occasion on which Australia offered environmental refuge to a Pacific island. In 1963, Canberra proposed that Nauruans could voluntarily relocate to Curtis Island off the coast of Queensland as their homeland in a belief that Nauru would become uninhabitable due to phosphate mining.

The Nauruan leadership rejected the offer of relocation fearing both the loss of their nationhood and ultimately their sovereignty.

The Tuvaluans have similar fears today and thus are anxious to preserve the sovereignty of Tuvalu as a state as well as their identity as Tuvaluans. Thus, they are seeking similar arrangements with other regional states including New Zealand to spread the risks of relying solely on Canberra.

Rather than a slippery slope to dependency, the Falepili Union is best considered as a continuation of the innovative ways that Tuvalu has pursued since independence to preserve and protect its sovereignty. These include its 1987 aid-supported national trust fund, its plan to preserve national identity through a digital recreation of the entire country and its attempt at legal preservation of its borders despite sea-level rises.

Australian intentions will become more explicit when the treaty is submitted to the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Treaties along with a national interest assessment for public comment. The committee’s recommendation on implementation legislation will be important to clarify the depth of the Falepili Union for Australia.