Intro: Can India play proactive role in Asia-Pacific?
The region Asia-Pacific has emer-ged as a global epicentre for trade and economy, politics and diplomacy and has thus raised the concerns for security. Recognising its importance, the United States has termed the region as “pivot” and has expressed its intention to “rebalance” this theatre. Where emerging power China has already made substantial forays in this region. Now it’s India’s turn to play its role in the region.
During his recent visit, one of the substantial takeaways from the recent 10-day visit of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to this region was not only the change in country’s ‘Look East Policy’ to ‘Act East Policy’ but also in strengthening the bonds in the last frontiers of the east to the Pacific Islands, which was long overdue.
For India to play a more proactive role in the region, it needs to be a member of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). India already has Summit level talks with ASEAN and is represented in East Asia Summit (EAS) and Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) which is held at Summit level. India also participates in ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and in ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meetings++ (ADMM++). The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is being worked out with the 10-member ASEAN bloc and seven other countries including India.
Prime Minister Modi in his recent visit to Fiji formalised the first meeting of leaders of 14 Pacific Island countries including Cooks Island, Tonga, Tuvalu, Nauru, Kiribati, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Samoa, Niue, Palau, Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Fiji and Papua New Guinea, which form the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) alongwith Australia. Next such India-PIF Summit level meeting is slated in a coastal city in India. With all such engagements, India rightly qualifies for the membership of APEC.
Modi has rightly lauded Fiji’s return to democracy under the new Constitution that gives equal rights to all citizens including Indian citizens in that country. The wise decision was to rope in Pacific Island countries through Pan-Pacific IT network for tele-medicines and tele-education on the lines of Pan-Africa IT network successfully implemented by India. He has announced visa-on-arrival for citizens of all 14 PIF countries, setting up of $ one million Adaptation Fund to combat climate change and assured to set up regional hubs for solar energy.
India has promised to provide $125,000 Grant-in-aid annually to each PIF country for locally selected community projects. With a view to increase trade between PIF countries and India, Modi assured to help setting up of trade offices in PIF missions in India. Sharing of IT experiences, training of diplomats, capacity building, and cooperation in space technology was also assured by him.
But still much is needed to be done to ensure a perfect marriage between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. And India should take the initiative in this direction.
The Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), in which India is a member alongwith 19 other countries, is still in its infancy. IORA meetings take place at the level of foreign ministers. At present Australia, Bangladesh, Comoros, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kenya, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mozambique, Oman, Seychelles, Singapore, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Thailand, UAE and Yemen are its members. And China, Egypt, France, Japan, UK and the US are its Dialogue Partners.
There is an urgent need for including all the countries in the Indian Ocean Rim as members of IORA. Egypt which is situated on the banks of the Suez Canal should be taken in as a member and not as a mere Dialogue Partner. Absolute priority should be given to upgrade IORA to Summit level talks. Like ASEAN, the IORA group should be based perfectly on geographical necessity to maintain its own centrality.
Regional blocs in the Asia-Pacific have become an urgent necessity in the era of globalisation. Strengthening of integration in South Asia is important. The 8-member South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) should be strengthened and neighbouring Myanmar should be a member. It is important to remember, centrality of SAARC and IORA and ASEAN and PIF on the other side can eventually ensure a perfect marriage of the two great oceans – Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean.
Ashok B Sharma (The writer is a senior columnist)