The President of Kiribati has played down the chances of his country striking a treaty with Australia similar to the landmark pact which Anthony Albanese signed late last week with Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Kausea Natano.
The Falepili Union — inked by Albanese and Natano at the end of the Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting in Rarotonga — will open a new pathway to Australian residency for Tuvalu’s citizens threatened by rising seas, while giving Australia effective veto power over any new security agreements struck by the Pacific island nation.
Kiribati’s President Taneti Maamau told the ABC the agreement would help Australia “look after” Tuvalu’s development needs, and potentially its security needs as well.
“It’s an important initiative for Australia to take, and I congratulate Australia on taking it,” he said.
There had already been speculation that Kiribati and Nauru — two other low lying Pacific countries which don’t already have comparable agreements with other countries — might strike similar agreements with Australia in the future.
Foreign Minister Penny Wong left the door ajar to that possibility while speaking on Insiders, suggesting the Falepili Union could serve as a model.
“That’s a matter for those nations but I think what this does signal is how we are prepared to approach our membership of the Pacific family,” she said.
But Maamau struck a non-committal tone when the ABC asked him if he’d be open to a similar pact with Australia.
“Maybe, but we have our own strategies and our own initiatives. Australia hasn’t approached us on that,” he told the ABC.
“I think we have our own way of doing things.”
Australia’s ties with Kiribati have been strained in recent years.
The Micronesian nation has drifted much closer to China since switching diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019, and went through a period of diplomatic isolation after it split from the Pacific Islands Forum, before returning this year.
Australian officials were also concerned by Maamau’s crackdown on the judiciary, including his attempts to deport Australian judge David Lambourne.
But earlier this year Senator Wong travelled to Kiribati and struck a major new development and security co-operation pact with Maamau, in a move which seems to have helped shore up Australia’s diplomatic position.
Australia and Tuvalu’s joint announcement last week took many countries by shock, with Albanese only briefing Pacific leaders hours earlier, during the Pacific Islands Forum retreat on Aitutaki.
So far, the public response from other Pacific nations has been positive, with Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown and Solomon Islands foreign minister Jeremiah Manele both publicly backing the pact. New Zealand and the United States have also expressed support.
Taiwan’s vice-foreign minister Tien Chung-Kwang went further, suggesting that Australia could well strike further agreements with other Pacific nations.
“I cannot predict, however, I think Australia now is taking charge on that issue (and) Tuvalu will be the first one,” Tien told the ABC.
“I believe given (its) leadership in this region, Australia will do something similar in other countries. We’d welcome that.”
Natano again hailed the significance of the agreement in an interview with the ABC the day after the signing ceremony, saying he wanted to “give his citizens confidence” they would have a safe harbour as climate change escalates.
“Anyone who wishes to seek greener pasture or safety out of the impact of climate change, we have prepared a platform for them,” he said.
He also said he’d use Tuvalu’s close ties with Australia under the new agreement to press for more urgent action on climate change.
“I think it’s our duty and our obligation as leaders of the Pacific to work with Australia and pressure them to reduce the gas emissions, because we cannot just ignore what is happening,” he said.
But in a separate interview, the prime minister seemed to send mixed messages about the security elements in the agreement.
Under the treaty, Australia will help Tuvalu build up its defences to rising sea levels, as well as offering a new residency pathway for its citizens, and promising to respond to help Tuvalu with natural disasters and military aggression on request.
In return, the treaty says Tuvalu will have to get Australia’s agreement before it strikes a deal with any other countries on any security or defence matters.
Albanese said that the treaty would “formalise Australia as Tuvalu’s partner of choice going forward”.
But Natano told TVNZ on Saturday that he might strike a similar agreement with New Zealand, saying that he could use the “same model” with Wellington.
The Tuvalu Prime Minister also seemed to play down Tuvalu’s treaty obligation to get Australia’s consent for new security agreements, saying that the pact only required his country to “first” approach Australia on military issues.
“They (Australia) are the first ones to receive our request, but we don’t have to ask their permission, it’s up to us,” he said.
The ABC has approached Natano to seek clarity on his comments.
Meanwhile, the UN Special Envoy on Climate Mobility, Carlos Alvarado Quesada, has praised the agreement, while stressing it did not detract from the urgency of cutting carbon emissions to prevent catastrophic sea level rise.
“We congratulate both the leaders of Tuvalu and Australia for this treaty because it’s recognising your current situation and the need to have options for people, to protect people’s rights all across the region,” he said.
“But… we should continue all efforts necessary to phase down the usage of fossil fuels, because that’s actually the existential threat that the Pacific Islands are facing.”
“The first right to protect, is the right to stay,” he said.
SOURCE: ABC PACIFIC/PACNEWS