The history of the world is one of the rise and fall of nations. Cultures evolve, but they also disappear. Yet it is only in recent decades that have we come to fully understand what we lose when cultures disappear. When, for example, a language dies, a unique facet of humanity and ways of understanding the world die with it.
Despite this recognition, smaller nations continue to live precariously. Although we now have strong global commitments to cultural preservation, these efforts often struggle to resist the unstoppable force of larger, more powerful nations. Larger powers, due to cultural hegemonies or expansionist designs – either intentionally or unintentionally – tend to trample across the worlds of smaller nations.
Yet alongside the reality of the often unfair competition between cultural forces, we now have the unfair environmental force of climate change. Climate change is a force that smaller nations are not responsible for, but disproportionately feel the consequences of. Those nations whose geographies offer them little protection from these consequences face an existential crisis that is every bit as serious as traditional security concerns.
It is within this context that we should feel a certain sorrow toward the new security agreement between Australia and Tuvalu. An agreement to outsource some security matters is not uncommon for smaller countries, which use whatever partnerships are available to them to protect their interests as best they can. Yet it is the migration component to this security deal that is heartbreaking – an admission that as waters rise, Tuvalu, at just 4.5 meters above sea level at its highest point, faces the likelihood that much of its territory will become uninhabitable.
This makes the agreement with Australia effectively a “lifeboat” deal, which will be used to offer the people of Tuvalu sanctuary as their remaining livable land succumbs to the ocean. Although the number of Tuvaluans able to migrate to Australia will initially be small – 280 each year from a population of just over 11,000 – this figure will undoubtedly become larger should conditions warrant it.
The figure is currently low to maintain the viability of Tuvalu for as long as possible. But it also offers the Tuvaluan people a chance to start building community infrastructure in Australia. This may be a way to save some cultural identity and national traits, although given how so much of culture is tied to geography there will undoubtedly be a significant loss.
This also poses the question of what happens to the country’s cultural artifacts – what contingencies are in place to protect Tuvalu’s historical memory? Where will this memory, and these things, be housed?
The government of Tuvalu would not have entered into such an agreement lightly. This kind of security agreement is not simply about the everyday functioning of the islands. It is about the consideration of the nation throughout time. The weight of these considerations are beyond what a normal government would usually have to contemplate. Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Kausea Natano carries a heavy burden – although he may not have consulted widely with the public.
The security agreement creates an entirely new relationship with Australia that goes beyond a national contingency plan. It means that any decisions made about national defense, policing, border protection, cybersecurity, and critical infrastructure – including ports, telecommunications and energy infrastructure – will be made by mutual agreement with Australia. This effectively sets Tuvalu up as an Australian protectorate.
There are good reasons why Tuvalu would consider this agreement worthwhile. As a country that maintains diplomatic ties with Taiwan, it is safe to assume that Tuvalu is very wary about China’s influence in the region. The conformity expected by authoritarian regimes doesn’t offer much assurance for small nations that lack the resources to resist. If smaller states suffer what they must, then they make the very rational calculation about whose influence will cause them to suffer the least.
Alongside its wariness of authoritarianism, the Tuvaluan people have strong cultural connections with Taiwan’s indigenous people. Maintaining these links – even under the conditions of a slow evacuation – is incredibly important. That’s something that wouldn’t be possible were Tuvalu to succumb to pressure to recognize Beijing. A security arrangement with Australia provides a safety net to resist this pressure and pursue the cultural connections it chooses.
While this security agreement may be built on an unfortunate resignation about Tuvalu’s future, it should also be noted that serious action on climate change has the ability to arrest its most brutal consequences. Australia offering sanctuary to Tuvalu’s people carries less ethical weight than helping to protect their homeland via an accelerated green transition.