In an ever-evolving world of diplomacy, it’s time for the United States to set its sights on a new horizon. Tuvalu, the least visited and fourth smallest country in the world, might not be on everyone’s radar but it holds a world of potential.
The United States first appointed an ambassador to Tuvalu in 1980 but the ambassador has resided in Suva, Fiji, ever since. The U.S. ambassador to Tuvalu is also the ambassador to Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, and Tonga. U.S. embassies have recently opened in Tonga and Solomon Islands, with plans to open ones in Vanuatu and Kiribati. The United States has overlooked Tuvalu, however. It must look to establish an official mission there.
Tuvalu has a population of about 11,000. It is made up of nine atolls with official languages being Tuvaluan and English. Located within Polynesia, it is a former British colony (then known as the Ellice Islands) and became fully independent as a sovereign state within the Commonwealth in 1978. Since then, it has been a parliamentary democracy with a unicameral parliament consisting of 16 members without political parties.
The international system is currently seeing great power competition in the Pacific between the United States and China. In recent years, Tuvalu has strengthened ties with Taiwan, openly opposing China. Tuvalu is one of only 14 United Nations members recognizing the Republic of China government on Taiwan.
In 2019, the government of Tuvalu turned down a $400 million offer from Chinese companies to construct artificial islands. Former Minister of Justice, Communication, and Foreign Affairs Simon Kofe stated he suspected the Chinese government backed those companies. Given the dire need for climate finance, this rejection of significant investment demonstrates how committed Tuvalu is to opposing China.
To counter China’s growing influence in the Pacific Islands countries, the United States has made an admirable effort from a regional standpoint with further investment and presence. U.S. President Joe Biden hosted the first annual U.S. Pacific Summit in September 2022 followed by a second one this year; Prime Minister of Tuvalu Kausea Natano was in attendance for both. The most summit recent reaffirmed a strong U.S.-Pacific partnership focusing on security, trade, infrastructure, and the protection of nature concerning climate change.
Additional measures include Biden’s appointment of Frankie Reed as the U.S. envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum in 2022 and a $1.5 million grant to the Pacific Community supporting its Pacific Energy and Gender Strategic Action Plan (PEGSAP).
While the United States has made a significant effort regionally, these efforts have not been replicated at the national level in Tuvalu. While Ambassador to Tuvalu Marie Damour’s visit in May of 2023 was a step in the right direction, the United States must do more. Establishing an official mission in Tuvalu will capitalize on its opposition to China.
Tuvalu is the most vulnerable country in the world to climate change. Its highest point above sea level is 4.6 meters, leading to horrendous floods during king tides. Furthermore, because the country is a coral atoll and has high salinity levels in the soil, there is very little agriculture. As a result, unhealthy, processed foods are imported, leading to over 55 percent of the adult population being considered obese. As you drive down the roads in Tuvalu, you see the graves of the lives lost, almost all dying at a much younger age than they should due to their living conditions.
The frequency of extreme weather events has increased in the past decades, impacting both the living and the dead. When Tropical Cyclone Pam hit Tuvalu in 2015, the waves upturned graves, leaving dead bodies floating.
Climate finance has been pouring into the region, including from the United States, and that must continue. However, without having an on-ground presence, it is difficult to understand how allies can best assist. The effects of climate change on Tuvalu are largely unseen to Americans because there is no on-ground presence.
Face-to-face contact is a key way to build trust with Tuvaluans, and deploying officials to Tuvalu is a way to achieve this. Personal engagement with locals will generate a greater understanding of climate challenges. The United States is investing billions of dollars in the region, and it must ensure that the money is being used effectively.
The United States may hesitate to open up an embassy in Tuvalu for a handful of reasons. The financial cost of establishing and operating an embassy varies, but a diplomatic mission in Tuvalu may cost more than the average given the geographical isolation of the nation. Funafuti, the capital of Tuvalu, is over 7,300 miles or 11,700 kilometers from Washington D.C. That said, the United States has already spent billions on its fight in the great power competition. The additional financial costs it would incur would be minimal compared to the more effective assistance Washington would provide and the influence it would gain.
Additionally, U.S. officials may see limited benefits to opening an embassy, as Tuvalu, with a small population of 11,000, is not a major ally or economic partner of the United States. However, the size of a country should not matter as small countries deserve diplomatic relations just as much as large countries do. Understandably, the United States might have doubts about opening up an embassy in Tuvalu, but they would be overcome if the benefits of having one are realized.
The time is now for the U.S. to start prioritizing diplomatic relations with Tuvalu. It is important to see where our aid is going and how we can make the best use of it for Tuvluans. The United States must take large steps to deter China and level the playing field in the Pacific. Establishing a diplomatic region in Tuvalu not only provides hope for Tuvaluans but expresses a commitment to the region.