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Pacific doubts on Australia's Tuvalu pact

Ben McKay -

Australia's treaty-making with Tuvalu at the Pacific Islands Forum has been met with scepticism and accusations of Canberra's heavy-handedness among regional commentators.

There are doubts as to whether the new pact has support in Tuvalu, or if it will survive upcoming elections.

Tuvalu Prime Minister Kausea Natano and Australian counterpart Anthony Albanese signed the treaty on Friday (AEDT) in the Cook Islands with far-reaching defence and climate impacts.

Australia grants Tuvalu a "security guarantee" as part of the Falepili Union, which is named after a Tuvaluan term for caring for neighbours.

Under the pact, it allows Australia an effective veto over Tuvaluan efforts to partner with other nations on matters concerning "defence, policing, border protection, cybersecurity and critical infrastructure, including ports, telecommunications and energy infrastructure".

The deal will also fund a land reclamation project, and grant Australian residency rights to 280 Tuvaluans each year as the Micronesian government looks to stave off the effects of climate change.

The federal opposition backs the treaty, with shadow defence minister Andrew Hastie saying it was "important that Australia leads and develops strong relationships" in the Pacific.

Others across the blue continent have assessed the Falepili Union with uneasiness.

Writing for the Toda Peace Institute, academics Taukiei Kitara and Carol Farbotko say the treaty "does not deliver climate justice for Tuvaluan people" and is instead a deal which delivers on Australian defence ambitions.

"Our gravest concerns about the treaty are that it sidesteps the important question of Australia's commitment to phasing out fossil fuels ... but quite clearly erodes Tuvalu's sovereignty on issues of national security," they say, writing from the Tuvaluan atoll of Vaitupu.

"The new treaty might result in a false signal to Tuvaluan people that their country is imminently unsafe to live in.

"If Australia really understood fale pili, Tuvaluans would have been offered a migration opportunity with no expectation that Australia would gain geopolitically."

New Zealand-based academic Anna Powles, of Massey University, said the announcement at the Pacific summit in Rarotonga gave the deal "a veneer of regional legitimacy".

Dr Powles said the lack of local consultation was significant.

"Its popularity may be tested at the polls when Tuvalu votes in a new government in January 2024," she wrote on social media.

Broadcasting doyen Barbra Dreaver, TVNZ Pacific Correspondent, called the pact a "one-sided win for the bigger partner" and "nothing but a con job".

"Tuvalu was ripe for the picking. The tiny islands are badly affected by the impacts of climate change and their coral atolls means they can't grow anything there and the economy struggles," she said.

"Tuvalu did not ask for this particular agreement, which Australia is claiming. Tuvalu has asked many countries for help and Australia saw an opportunity and took it."

The treaty was negotiated in secret, and announced on Friday at a press conference with key details withheld from attending journalists.

Like Dr Powles, Ms Dreaver suggests the treaty could become an election issue in Tuvalu.

"There are a number of politicians and officials in Tuvalu diametrically opposed to it. There is an election early next year and if there is a change of government they are likely to take a different view of this," Ms Dreaver said.

The Tuvalu treaty follows Canberra's announcement of a security deal with Vanuatu last December.

The Melanesian nation has struggled with political instability, with deal-making prime minister Ishmael Kalsakau since replaced by Sato Kilman and Charlot Salwai.

Ben McKay - AAP

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