TUVALU: ‘We share Taiwan’s democratic principles, values and struggles for sovereignty’

KialiMoluCIVICUS speaks about the prospects following the inauguration of a new government in Tuvalu with Kiali Molu, a PhD candidate in Politics and International Affairs at the University of Bergen in Norway and at the University of the South Pacific.

Kiali is a native Tuvaluan and his research, currently funded by the government of Norway, focuses on Tuvalu’s strategies to maintain its statehood and sovereignty as its territory is threatened by sea-level rise.

What can be expected from Tuvalu’s new government?

The government led by Prime Minister Feleti Teo was formed just a few weeks ago, in late February, and it remains to be seen what it will do moving forward. But there are reasons for optimism.

Teo has had a highly successful career as a national and regional civil servant. In his previous job he was the executive director of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission. He has previously served as the Attorney General of Tuvalu, Director General of the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency and Deputy Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Development Forum. He has worked tirelessly for Tuvalu and the Pacific region. It is clear he brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the job.

I think we have a very capable prime minister to guide us over the next four years. In his swearing-in speech, he outlined 21 priorities his administration will focus on during his tenure. It is evident that climate change is a major and top priority for the current government. This appears to be a continuation from the previous administration’s agenda.

Why is climate change such an urgent priority for Tuvalu?

Climate change is an urgent priority for this and previous administrations because Tuvalu faces imminent threats from the rise in sea levels. We are deeply invested in finding practical solutions to address this challenge. We need tangible actions rather than continued reliance on international forums to address emissions reductions. Raising the island through land reclamation is a potential solution, albeit an expensive one, that requires exploration. We also advocate for strengthening exploration into the virtual realm to assert Tuvalu’s sovereignty and presence on the global stage. The partnership treaty signed with Australia during the Pacific Forum Leaders meeting in the Cook Islands last year is seen as a promising avenue to facilitate such endeavours.

We aim to contribute to policymaking by redefining the concept of the modern state to better accommodate small island nations like Tuvalu. By challenging and reshaping the discourse on sovereignty and statehood, Tuvalu aims to maintain its status as an independent sovereign state, even in the face of environmental challenges that put its territory at risk.

Our vision aligns with the goal of preserving Tuvalu’s cultural heritage, traditions and rights while also advocating for greater inclusivity and representation of small island nations in global governance discussions. This holistic approach underscores the importance of proactive and innovative strategies to safeguard Tuvalu’s future in a changing world.

What major foreign policy decisions has the new prime minister announced?

In his inaugural speech, Teo confirmed that Tuvalu would remain aligned with Taiwan and flagged a review of the Australia-Tuvalu partnership signed by his predecessor.

Despite potential pressures from China, Tuvalu sees value in maintaining its friendship with Taiwan. Teo highlighted that Tuvalu embraces the same democratic principles as Taiwan, which strengthens the bond between the two nations. Tuvalu values its relationship with Taiwan not only for the potential development aid it may receive but also because the two countries share the same democratic principles and values and similar struggles for sovereignty, albeit in different contexts. While Taiwan strives for recognition as a sovereign state, Tuvalu is working to maintain its status as a sovereign nation in the face of the threat of sea-level rise. This shared struggle fosters deeper understanding and solidarity between the two countries.

Additionally, there’s been significant discussion both within and outside Tuvalu regarding the part of the partnership treaty that allows Tuvaluans to apply for permanent residency in Australia.

While some view this treaty as a proactive step for Tuvaluans to seek solutions and opportunities beyond waiting for external assistance, others have raised concerns. Some argue the treaty undermines Tuvalu’s sovereignty by granting Australia a say in security agreements. We should recognise that political dynamics often involve trade-offs, and differing perspectives should be considered.

The fact that the treaty has not yet been ratified by the legislatures of Tuvalu and Australia indicates there is room for discussion and refinement. It is encouraging to hear that our new prime minister intends to consult with local communities, particularly those in the outer islands, regarding the implications of this treaty. This commitment to consultation suggests a desire to ensure that any agreements made are in the best interest of Tuvaluans.

Overall, while there is still work to be done and concerns to address, there is optimism that progress is being made in the right direction. It is to be expected that the new prime minister will make decisions with the welfare of Tuvaluans at heart.

How much space is there for Tuvaluan civil society to fulfil the full range of its roles?

Civil society organisations (CSOs) operate freely in Tuvalu, supported by government funding to sustain their operations. While the level of this financial support may not always be optimal, collaborations with partners from other countries and international organisations contribute to enhancing their impact.

Civil society plays a crucial role, deeply integrated into government work and engaged in various issues as key stakeholders. Close collaboration is facilitated by Tuvalu’s small size, allowing CSOs to be well-recognised and acknowledged.

The Tuvalu Association of NGOs (TANGO) serves as an umbrella for numerous smaller organisations, actively participating in government initiatives such as climate dialogue and representing Tuvalu on important issues. Similarly, the Tuvalu National Youth Council and the Tuvalu National Council of Women contribute significantly to government planning in their respective focus areas. Religion, deeply ingrained in Tuvaluan life, also plays a vital role through church involvement in negotiations and serving as mediators to ensure inclusive discussions.

Overall, CSOs are integral partners in Tuvalu’s fight against climate change and in advancing its development goals. They are recognised for their important contributions, but would also benefit from additional financial support.

Civic space in Tuvalu is rated ‘open’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Follow @willkmolu on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIVICUS.

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