Prime Minister Modi’s second leg of the three-nation tour to Papua New Guinea made for compelling news due to the unprecedented gesture of in-person attendance of Prime Minister James Marape at the airport and attempting to touch the Indian premier’s feet. This profound, peerless, honest act of respect is an expression of deep gratitude for India’s generous shipment of vaccines to the Pacific Island countries when the World’s mightiest powers have turned inwards.
The host country made a special exception to PM Modi by extending a full ceremonial official welcome of a 19-gun salute and guard of honour after sunset. The visit also assumes special significance for being the first visit ever by an Indian Prime Minister to Papua New Guinea, the venue for the 3rd FIPIC (Forum for India-Pacific Island Cooperation) Meeting. Leaders of 14 Pacific Island Countries (PIC)- Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Nauru, Tuvalu, Tonga, the Cook Islands, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Niue, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Palau, Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), and Samoa attended the meeting.
The South Pacific region which is home to the Pacific Island Countries has been an arena for geopolitical contestations. Modi’s current visit which was planned to coincide with President Biden’s Pacific nation tour had a deep undertone of strategic aspect to it. The power competition in the region took a sharp turn with China signing a minimum five-year security agreement with Solomon Islands in April 20221.
Often referred to as Second Chain Islands, this treaty is China’s attempt to displace the US as the predominant Pacific Power and is viewed as an apparent tit-tat for the maritime encirclement of US allies in the First Island region. Though a naval base in the Solomon Islands under this treaty, China plans to exert control over the sea lines of communication between the US and its allies in the region. This development has come as a jolt to the US, spurring an active Oceania outreach.
While this has been the trigger, the renaming of Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific brought with a marked realisation- the importance of the Oceania region as a bridge connecting it to the Indo-Pacific. In fact, making up for 15% of Earth’s surface, the Pacific Island nations are now referred to as the “Ocean Continent”, constituting the vital sub-region of the Indo-Pacific.
After China’s attempt to sign an economic and security agreement with PICs, the US has ramped up its commitment to the region. In the US Indo-Pacific Strategy 2022, Washington clearly elucidated its intention of becoming an indispensable partner to the Pacific Islands and reiterated its commitment to strengthening cooperation with PICs at May 2022, in-person Quad Leaders meeting in Tokyo. In June 2022, the US announced an informal mechanism, ‘Partners in Blue Pacific’ (PBP) guided by the PIF’s 2050 Strategy for Blue Pacific Continent with its allies the UK, Australia and Japan and emphasised prosperity, resilience, security, and climate change initiatives. India joined the first meeting of PBP in September as an observer2.
Taking the engagement to the next level, amid China’s escalating overtures to the region, the Biden administration hosted the first US-Pacific Island Country Summit in September 2022 at Washington. The US released Pacific Partnership Strategy at the summit attended by leaders and representatives from 12 PICs3. The nine-point declaration includes the completion of negotiations on the Compact Free Associations with Palau, Marshall Islands and FSM, conclusion of negotiations on the fishing cooperation through the 1998 South Pacific Tuna Treaty which was renewed thrice4.
The US also announced plans to ramp up its diplomatic presence from the existing six to nine embassies, the appointment of a US envoy to PIF (Pacific Islands Forum), re-establish USAID Mission in Fiji, expand its peace corps presence across the Pacific and Encourage connectivity with existing frameworks- ASEAN, the Quad. To coordinate with allies and partners on climate change, economic and maritime security and cooperation, cybersecurity and health security. Firm footed to revive ties with PICs, US and Fiji signed Trade and Investment Partnership Agreement (TIPA) in 2020. Additionally, US Vice-President Kamla Harris announced economic assistance of $600 million for 10 years.
Ostensibly, China’s burgeoning foothold in the region has woken up the US from its slumber. Previously US ties with the region were largely a military outreach and ignored developmental priorities. China quickly filled this void by working with regional partners.
In fact, China’s interest in the South Pacific was driven by Taiwan’s close diplomatic links with countries in the region. To gain entry into the region, China became the sixth dialogue partner of the PIF in 1990 comprising 16 PICs- the 14 independent PICs plus New Caledonia and French Polynesia, Australia and New Zealand. The five founding dialogue partners are Canada, France, Japan, the UK and the US. India joined in 2006.
Leveraging ‘briefcase diplomacy’, China successfully forced several countries to sever ties with Taiwan, the latest being the Solomon Islands and Kiribati in 2019. As of now, four PIC countries recognise Taiwan- Tuvalu, Taiwan’s oldest ally; Palau, Nauru, and the Marshall Islands.
China steadily expanded its foothold in the region through economic incentives and managed to rope in several PICs under the BRI connectivity project. Around 2017 China has overtaken Australia and New Zealand to emerge as the largest trading partner of PICs. China surpassed the US in development assistance and is among the top three lenders to the PICs after Asian Development Bank.
Till recently, India’s interest in the region was limited to its connections with the indentured labour settled in Fiji. Following the 1987 military coup by Lt General Sitiveni Rabuka that dislodged the elected government led by the ethnic Indian Prime Minister Timoci Bavadra and forced eviction of several ethnic Indian families, New Delhi reacted very sharply. Interestingly, days ahead of PM Modi’s visit to the region, Rabuka who is now the elected Prime Minister apologised to the Indo-Fijian community and sought their forgiveness. This reconciliation between the indigenous Fijian and Indian communities is quite significant. It is an act of reciprocation for Modi’s visit to Fiji in 2014 that ended the freeze on high-level visits to the country since Rabuka ousted the democratically elected government5.
Passionately championing climate change initiatives, India at the recent G7 Outreach spoke about the vulnerability of the small islands to the climate crisis and voiced concerns of the Global South. Japan, as a party to PBP, invited Cook Islands, the 2023 PIF Chair to the G7 outreach. The Quad countries along the sidelines of G7 Outreach reaffirmed to support the objectives of the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent6, a template evolved by PIF for Pacific Regionalism to collectively address the challenges of the region.
Akin to ASEAN’s centrality to the Indo-Pacific region, PICs are central to South Pacific Region. The solidarity among the countries within these groups is their real strength. Cultivating a few countries within the ASEAN, Dragon has successfully deranged the consensus of ASEAN. Beijing has attempted to apply a similar template to the South Pacific region through its wide-ranging economic and security deal also called the Five-Year Action Plan on Common Development that excluded countries with diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
PICs are guided by the PIF’s 2050 Strategy for Blue Pacific Continent which bolsters Pacific regionalism and mandates countries to work together as a single cohesive unit to address the enduring climate related-challenges, like climate change, geostrategic competition, resource and economic development. To Beijing’s dismay, PICs have turned down its deal that hinted at an ambitious military presence in the region. Amid this geopolitical jostling between the US and China for influence, India quietly entered the region.
For a long time, India has neglected its ties with these countries despite the deep traditional and diaspora linkages. With the inauguration of the Forum for India-Pacific Island Cooperation in November 2014 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his visit to Suva, India began strengthening relationships at G2G and B2B levels. At the second FIPIC held at Jaipur, Modi termed the India-Pacific Island relationship as a “partnership of equals”. Co-chairing the third FIPIC at Port Moresby, Modi called PICs “large Ocean countries and not small island states”7.
In his opening remarks at the third FIPIC, PM Modi underscored the challenges faced the Small Island Countries like Climate change, natural disasters, hunger, poverty, health-related challenges, and barriers to supply chains of food, fuel, fertiliser, and pharmaceuticals. He said, “Those whom we considered trustworthy, it turned out that they were not standing by our side in times of need”.
Referring to India’s aid of vaccines, essential medicines, wheat, and sugar, PM Modi added, “I am glad that India stood with its Pacific Island friends during this challenging time… as the old saying has proven true: “A friend in need is a friend indeed”8. India also announced a 12-point action plan to drive the India-Pacific Islands partnership to fulfil PICs developmental aspirations. These include the plans for setting up of a super speciality hospital in Fiji with dialysis units and sea ambulances, desalination units, yoga centres, Jan Aushadi centres dispensing generic medicines. Two Jaipur Foot Camps every year in Fiji to provide free prosthetic limbs, upgradation of the Centre for Excellence for IT in Papua New Guinea into a Regional Information Technology and Cybersecurity Hub, the development of the SME sector and 1000 ITEC opportunities under the new “Sagar Amrut Scholarship” over the next five years.
Unlike major powers, India’s focus has been on capacity building and partnering on climate change issues which align with PIF’s Blue Pacific Strategy. PICs would stand to benefit from India’s Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI) with an emphasis on developing infrastructure for Small Island Developing States (SIDS). India invited the PICs to join the CDRI. India has launched an Initiative for Resilient Island States (IRIS)9 that collaborates with ISRO for obtaining early warnings regarding major natural disasters to mitigate the damages.
To effectively push China, the US is now partnering with India under the India-US triangular Development Partnership to address global development challenges and formalise collaboration on a range of health-related aspects in Fiji10. Though Biden and Modi planned to address the leaders of PICs together after Biden had cancelled the visit, Modi went ahead and delivered an unmistakable message of supporting the developmental priorities of PICs. A day later, US Secretary Anthony Blinken signed a defence cooperation agreement with Papua New Guinea.
Island States which are now feeling left out of global discussions and considering themselves as the victims of great power influence are now pinning hopes on India. India has always positioned itself as a developmental partner and India’s Vaccine Maitri validated the same. Walking the talk of delivering on its civilisational values of Vasudaiva Kutumbakam, India has assisted these Islands during the Covid pandemic and accumulated an intangible wealth of trust.
In line with these values, India assumed the Presidency of the G20 with the theme of “One Earth, One Family and One Future”. Highlighting the concerns of the developing countries, India reached out to countries through the Voice of the Global South Summit. Welcoming Modi, Prime Minister Marape, said, “we are victims of global powerplay… you (PM Modi) are the leaders of Global South. We will rally behind your (India) leadership at global forums. You are the voice that can offer our issues at the highest as advanced economies discuss matters relating to economy, commerce, trade and geopolitics”11.
India’s development collaboration with the US in the Pacific Islands can help in the seamless integration of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. Instead of working in silos with region-specific interests, a triangular development cooperation can cater well to the developmental needs of PICs. But the US has a poor record of deliverance especially in the Pacific region.
Critics have accused India of snubbing French colonies New Caledonia and French Polynesia in the region. India’s plans to work towards the goal of the blue economy with these Countries through the revived India, France and Australia trilateral. India is not competing for any influence in the region unlike the US and China. It has a limited goal of emerging as a developmental partner as of now. With the World tossed up the geopolitical contests and great power games, India can become a stabilising force for the good of the countries in the southern Pacific.
Image source: Money Control