The Guardian • Issue #2080

Albanese in Tuvalu

Altruism or imperialism?

Photo: 350.org – flickr.com (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Anthony Albanese’s return from Beijing, via Tuvalu, was accompanied by much fanfare. The media largely focused on what has been presented as a triumph of benevolence and altruism. Australia is being portrayed as offering a helping hand across the South Pacific to a neighbour in distress.

As climate change makes the island less able to sustain life, Australia will offer sanctuary. Has Australia suddenly become that friend across the water? Have its motives suddenly become so embracing? Or, is Australia simply serving its own best interests, and, by implication, the interests of its American ally?

The Tuvaluan people might question the morality of a country like Australia. It shed crocodile tears for Tuvalu while opening new coal mines, new gas projects, and is preparing to dump captured carbon from gas sites in the Timor Sea. Claims will be made that emission reduction targets are being met, while emissions are effectively being exported.

The fact that Tuvalu, like its island neighbours, is under serious threat of inundation by rising sea levels, is a tragedy. The tragedy is not of its making. It is a crime of capitalism. The big emitters, are getting away with murder. One hundred capitalist corporations in the world account for 71 per cent of total carbon emissions. None of these emitters are to be found on Tuvalu.

Capitalist states go through the motions, attend conferences and talk of what they are doing to resolve the crisis. The waters still rise. Temperatures continue to rise. Australia has contributed to the crisis. It is doing little to resolve the crisis, but now offers an alleged life-line. The assistance package has strings, but why would it not? When do capitalist powers do good for its own sake?

The citizens of Tuvalu will be able to resettle in Australia, but what sort of future will they face? The brightest and best will be among the first to leave. An easily exploited majority may come in their wake. Who wins? Who loses?

Even if, at a stretch, Australia’s actions could be seen as humanitarian, there is another far, darker element to the new treaty.

In 2020, the Australian government conducted an inquiry into Australia’s defence relationships with Pacific Island nations.

The inquiry promoted the idea that Australia should enter into ‘free compact’ arrangements with South Pacific nations. The aim was to make these states more ‘amenable’ to pressure from Australia. Aid, trade, defence, security issues were all to be the focus but unsurprisingly these arrangements best suited Australian and American interests. Western power was to be entrenched in the region. Chinese engagement with the island states was to be limited.

The nearest ‘model’ for such a policy is the near total domination of the Marshall Islands by the United States under its ‘compact of free association.’

The Falepili Union, between Australia and Tuvalu, while not formally a ‘compact’ bears a very close resemblance.

What is significant about the new treaty is in Article 4. It speaks of ‘cooperation for security and stability.’ The article reveals the importance of the treaty. It is quite blunt about who will be calling the shots. It states that Australia will act on requests from its partner to respond to major natural disasters, pandemics, or military aggression against Tuvalu. The government of Tuvalu, in return, must ‘mutually agree with Australia’ if it wishes to actively engage with any other country on issues of security or defence-related issues. Australia will have the power to determine who its ‘partner’ deals with and how. It is to be a very one-sided arrangement.

It locks the island nation into a range of areas that makes it more and more beholden to Australia. Tuvalu is effectively handing over defence, policing, border protection, ports, telecommunications, and energy controls to Australia. The Australian military would be able to maintain a presence. This is ambiguously framed around the notion that Australian armed forces would have to be ‘invited’ should a perceived need arise. The continued encroachments upon Australian sovereignty from the US might be a portent of what Tuvalu has to look forward to.

The anti-China push from the USA, so ably supported by Australia is played out in the South Pacific. A fury was unleashed when China and the Solomon Islands signed a security arrangement in 2022. Rory Medcalf, head of the ANU’s National Security College was blunt. “It begs the question, if we can’t shape an outcome in a nearby small country where we’ve provided stability for decades, where can we?”

Since then, the imperialist powers of the USA and Australia have been working assiduously to ensure that the futures of ‘nearby small’ countries would be suitably shaped. After 30 decades of neglect, the USA began opening diplomatic missions and embassies and pledging money. The opportunism of this was on show to the world. China must be kept out. The Pacific is part of the American sphere of influence. Australia, who had earlier been criticised at the Pacific Island Forum for a ‘heavy handed’ approach to aid and for its abysmal attitudes to climate policies, suddenly discovered its ‘Pacific family.’

Tuvalu has an added importance. It is one of the very few remaining states to recognise Taiwan rather than China as the legitimate government. Allies in the anti-China campaign, it would seem, must be nurtured.

The humanitarian aspect to the Falepili Union, while of itself a laudable response to what is a very real crisis, must be seen in this broader context. Our media, conscious as they are of their role as massager of opinion, will focus primarily on the hand of friendship aspect of the treaty. What greater prize could be offered to the people of Tuvalu than a passage to Australia? The Tuvaluan people, like their neighbours in the Pacific have long wanted real climate action. Is this the action that will see them continue to live on their island for generations to come?

There is an expression that the Chinese government repeat. They seek a win-win solution. Australian policy in the region is very much predicated solely on the pursuit of national interest. Therein lies a difference that the people of Tuvalu might well learn too late.

Australia is an imperialist power, albeit an imperialist power in thrall to a greater imperialist power. The people of Tuvalu are pawns for both powers.

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