Australia has offered residency to individuals affected by climate change in Tuvalu as part of a comprehensive new treaty between the two nations. The Falepili Union, as the enhanced relationship is named, addresses the impacts of climate change on the Pacific island nation and solidifies security ties between Australia and Tuvalu.

Tuvalu consists of nine low-lying islands in the central Pacific with a population of about 11,200. It faces the imminent threat of rising sea levels due to climate change.

Australia pledged to grant up to 280 people from Tuvalu access to permanent residency annually, with a commitment to helping Tuvaluans “stay in their homes with safety and dignity.”

The security component of the treaty allows Australia to respond to Tuvalu’s requests related to natural disasters, pandemics, or military aggression. This covers a broad range of security including defence, policing, border protection, cybersecurity, and critical infrastructure. The agreement permits Australia’s military to have access and a presence in Tuvalu to assist as requested by the Pacific country.

The treaty also includes a provision where Tuvalu agrees to consult with Australia before entering into security and defence agreements with other countries.

The Falepili Union is seen as a strategic win for Australia, particularly in the context of China’s efforts to strengthen ties with Pacific island nations. Concerns arose in the Australian defence establishment after Beijing signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands. In response, the Albanese Labor government pledged to engage more actively with its Pacific neighbours, leading to the development of the comprehensive treaty with Tuvalu.

The announcement of the partnership follows three days of talks at a regional summit in the Cook Islands, where the climate crisis emerged as a prominent issue. The Falepili Union, named after a Tuvaluan term reflecting good neighbour relations, care, and mutual respect, underscores the unique challenges faced by Tuvalu, including climate change, geographical remoteness, and limited natural resources.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese met with Tuvalu’s Prime Minister, Kausea Natano, who expressed concerns about the potential submergence of Tuvalu due to the climate crisis.

Tuvalu maintains formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but China’s overtures toward the country have added a geopolitical dimension to the region.

The Pacific Islands Forum, consisting of 18 regional members, received a briefing on the agreement during a leaders’ retreat. As part of the commitment, Australia will collaborate on the Tuvalu Coastal Adaptation Project, focusing on reclaiming land in Funafuti to expand living space in response to rising sea levels. This initiative aligns with the broader goal of preserving Tuvalu’s sovereignty and ensuring the continued existence of its culture.

However, concerns linger about Australia’s approval of new coal and gas projects, considering the climate crisis as a top security threat for Pacific countries. Australian Greens leader, Adam Bandt, points out that preventing damage from such projects should be a priority over addressing their consequences. This perspective underscores the ongoing debate about the broader environmental impact of Australia’s energy policies and their implications for the Pacific region.