Great Power Relations with Oceania Nations

Under the assumption that the current trajectory toward irreversible climate change will continue, this post examines the most likely populations that will move and the pre-existing connections they have to other, larger nations.

*An important note: this post does not examine intra-regional migration, but rather discusses the role of larger powers in the migration of these populations. *

The Pacific Community’s World Fish website developed an interactive map of the island-nations within Oceania and the percentage of each population that lives within 1 kilometer, 5 kilometers, and 10 kilometers of the coast. Under this algorithm, we have determined which islands have more than 80% of their population within 1 kilometer of the coast; these nations are considered the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change and the most likely populations to move as a result of rising sea levels.

Pop % w/in 1 km Population w/in 1km Total Population Threshold
Kiribati 1 109693 109693 1
Tuvalu 1 109640 109640 1
Marshall Islands 1 53158 53158 1
Nauru 0.93 9206 9899 1
Palau 0.93 16510 17753 1
Cook Islands 0.91 13588 14932 1
Fed. St. of Micronesia 0.89 91059 102314 1
Tonga 0.84 84859 101023 1


As shown in the table above, those deemed most in danger are: Kiribati with 100%, Tuvalu with 100%, the Marshall Islands with 100%, Nauru with 93%, Palau with 98%, the Cook Islands with 91%, the Federated States of Micronesia with 89%, and Tonga with 84%. Each of these counties has either an existing or previous relationship with a larger nation in control of more resources including New Zealand, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. This post will discuss those nations with pre-existing relationships with the United Kingdom and Australia.


Kiribati and Tuvalu are current members of the British Commonwealth of Nations, which is a political association of 54-member states, most of which were former British colonies. According to the current Commonwealth immigration law, members of the Commonwealth have a right to apply for citizenship and/or request asylum in Great Britain as long as they were citizens of a Commonwealth nation (with a valid passport) before 31 December 1982. Both Kiribati and Tuvalu gained independence from Great Britain in 1976 and joined the Commonwealth in 1978 and 1979, respectively. Under the current law, this means that all living Kiribatians and Tuvaluans born before 1983 automatically have the right to apply and move to the United Kingdom. While there is currently no official law regarding Commonwealth nations moving as a result of climate change, Kiribati and Tuvalu citizens can simply invoke the aforementioned law and insist that the British government accept those citizens who are forced to move- which is 100% of the population for both according to the Pacific Community website.


Tonga has a similar history with Great Britain but is not a member of the British Commonwealth. Since the turn of the millennia, Tonga has held formal but distant ties with Great Britain and, through extension, the United States. The government has a policy of “Look[ing] East” as a way to create solidarity with other island-nations and to maintain positive relations with Australia, New Zealand, and Asian states such as China and Papua New Guinea. As a result of this, Tonga has no formal ties to a Great Power, but would most likely turn to Australia as a migration destination due to proximity and its regional influence.


Nauru, similar to Kiribati and Tuvalu, is a member state in the British Commonwealth of Nations, but it is more seriously tied to Australia. From 2001-2008 and again from 2012, the Australian government has been giving aid to Nauru in return for the construction of offshore Australian immigration detention centers on Nauru territory. This deal began, hurriedly, in 2001 as a result of the Tampa Affair, but once the Australian government realized how relatively easy it was to maintain these detention facilities, this course of action became the norm. The facilities are very controversial, and much has been written about their existence; but both governments continue their use because Nauru cannot deny the aid from Australia and Australia does not want to deal with the political backlash of accepting or rejecting these immigrants.


As climate change plunges Nauru under water, they will most likely lean on this relation to assist the movement of their population. Whether Australia simply finds another island on which to place the people of Nauru or they accept the 93% that lives within 1 kilometer of the coast remains unknown. But the Australia has tied itself to Nauru through the creation of these detention centers; for better or worse.

Morgan Henson is a dual degree masters student with an MA in Russian and East European Studies and a Master of Global Policy Students at the University of Texas at Austin. He graduated with a BA in History from Fordham University in New York City in 2015 and has intermittently lived and worked throughout Eastern Europe in the last half decade. His graduate research covers identity politics in Eastern Europe and interethnic conflicts in the former Soviet space, mainly the ethnic Russian diaspora living in the region. He has recently written on Russian and East European policy decisions and conflicts for the School of Russian and Asian Studies' Home & Abroad Internship.

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