The defence and security implications of the Australia–Tuvalu treaty
23 Nov 2023| and

The Falepili Union has shifted up the paradigm of Australia’s strategic policy in the Pacific by several gears. It represents a grand bargain, albeit in microcosm, that aims to address security needs from both Pacific islander and Australian viewpoints. The extension of a treaty-level security guarantee to the small island nation of Tuvalu, population 11,000, is currently within the Australian Defence Force’s capabilities, but nonetheless carries portentous implications for Australia’s defence and diplomatic settings in the Southwest Pacific. Has Canberra bitten off more than it can chew?

The decision to extend a formal security guarantee to Tuvalu as part of the agreement announced on 10 November was a surprise to many, but not exactly a bolt from the blue. The idea of linking Australia and the Pacific under a formal security arrangement has been debated in defence circles for over a decade, reflecting deep and long-term engagement. Australia’s security support, including through fisheries monitoring and military advisers, has primarily been delivered under the Pacific maritime security program and the defence cooperation program, with priorities determined jointly through annual talks.

For more than a year, Australia has been developing its thinking across government about how to integrate more closely with Pacific island nations by offering a broader policy package that addresses islanders’ climate, economic and human security needs, while simultaneously satisfying Canberra’s desire to staunch China’s growing security profile in the region.

The Falepili Union is not an obviously transposable template for other Pacific island countries to adopt. This is because its provisions echo a bespoke request from Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Kausea Natano—including protection from climate threats, but also the possibility of ‘military aggression’. But it is also because the Pacific is so diverse in its people and its politics. There is no one-size-fits-all model. That said, the agreement will provide a ‘shop window’ for other small island states in the region to monitor progress as they mull over whether to pursue similar arrangements with Australia or other parties.

Australia consulted widely across the Pacific Islands Forum before announcing the Tuvalu agreement, with particular attention to Nauru and Kiribati—the most likely candidates for a similar package deal due to their geography, demography and existing partnerships. For domestic political reasons, Canberra may also see advantage in trialling a special mobility scheme with a Pacific microstate before scaling up.

Attention has focused on the mutual agreement clause in the treaty, widely interpreted as giving Australia de facto veto power over Tuvalu entering into security-sector cooperation with third countries. That aligns with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s public explanation of the treaty’s provisions. In practical terms, Canberra’s external concerns centre on Beijing and the desire to avert any replication of the Solomon Islands–China security agreement of April 2022.

Tuvalu is one of just four Pacific countries to maintain official ties with Taiwan. Yet before approaching Australia, Tuvaluan officials pursued exploratory talks with China. This is important context to understanding Canberra’s decision to negotiate a legally binding agreement, both to pre-empt a Tuvaluan move to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan in favour of Beijing—as Solomon Islands and Kiribati both did in 2019—and to protect itself against future reversals. The treaty is open-ended once it enters into force, though it may be terminated by either party with a year’s notice.

So far, China’s reaction to the Falepili Union has been muted, limited to a brief response by the Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson and state media commentary from the Global Times. Beijing is still likely to be suspicious of Australia’s intentions, because the treaty will have the effect of shoring up Taiwan’s precarious diplomatic position in the Pacific. China’s suspicions are compounded by the fact that Nauru, which also recognises Taiwan, has been identified as the next cab off the rank. Taipei’s other two regional allies, Palau and Marshall Islands, are in compacts of free association with the United States that have both been renewed in 2023. The Federated States of Micronesia has also renewed its compact agreement with the US, and while it recognises Beijing it maintains very close relations with Washington. China is likely to read common purpose here between the US and its ally Australia.

Australia’s immediate motivations for offering Tuvalu a defence guarantee appear to be to deny China influence gains and a security foothold there. While no obvious threat of military aggression to Tuvalu is looming over the horizon, a treaty defence guarantee is an unprecedented commitment for Australia to make in the Pacific. Tuvalu is around 3,500 kilometres away from Australia’s closest bases, in Queensland. Mounting any kind of military operation over such a distance is no small undertaking. Even peacetime humanitarian and disaster relief operations in locations such as Tonga have strained the ADF’s capabilities.

In case of threatened or actual aggression against Tuvalu, Australia’s challenges would be exponentially harder. The ADF would be operating far beyond the range of unrefuelled land-based air cover, and Funafuti’s 1,500-metre runway is too short for high-performance aircraft. Even presupposing that Fiji, 1,000 kilometres away, was available for staging purposes, contested ADF operations in the vicinity of Tuvalu would be a stretch without help from the US. One of the noteworthy implications of ‘military aggression’ is that it points unambiguously to third-party contingencies in a way that previous Australian security commitments, to Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands, have not.

Defending Tuvalu against external aggression may appear to be an unlikely worst-case scenario. But formal defence guarantees need to be credible for the long term, particularly in a deteriorating security environment. Australia and China already compete most directly in the Pacific. If strategic competition between Beijing and Canberra intensifies, China could employ well-rehearsed grey-zone tactics—for example, encroaching on Tuvalu’s large exclusive economic zone, with the aim of sowing doubts about Australia’s resolve as a security guarantor, or simply tying down the ADF in logistically taxing long-range presence operations. Beijing is already using information operations and other hybrid threat actions in Pacific island countries to try to undermine trust in traditional partnerships with Australia.

Canberra has secured access to Tuvalu’s territory for the ADF under the Falepili Union, but forward-garrisoning Tuvalu on anything more than a symbolic scale would appear to be a tall order given the ADF’s capacity constraints. Is Canberra prepared to invest money in prepositioning stores and equipment, at the expense of existing defence infrastructure commitments under the 2023 defence strategic review? That also sounds unlikely, without supplementary funding. Even allowing for promised reclamation projects, land use in Tuvalu is going to come under increasing pressure. Nauru’s prospects aren’t much better in that respect. Kiribati is bigger, though the fact that Beijing already has a diplomatic foothold could frustrate Canberra’s efforts to secure terms similar to the security agreement with Tuvalu. Rollback is always more difficult than denial.