Intro : The Pacific Islands i.e. the group of 14 island nations in the South Pacific with a total population of just over 8 million people have been of great strategic significance to the major global powers.
The recently concluded meeting in Jaipur ‘Forum for Bharat-Pacific Islands Cooperation’ of 14 countries was another milestone in the foreign policy. This region which was completely ignored and delinked from Bharatiya strategic calculus, has been linked through a proper forum set up by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The diplomatic importance of this forum could be gauged by the fact that Bharat rolled out the red carpet for the leaders of the 14 Pacific Countries and threw a ceremonial reception by the Rashtrapati Bhawan in Delhi.
The Indian Ocean and Pacific region was emerging as a “centre of gravity of global politics. However, with the increasing focus on Asia in the 21st century, the Pacific Islands are equally important for Bharat and China as well. Outlining the importance of the region United States Navy Admiral Samuel J Locklear said, “Five trillion dollars of commerce ride on the sea lanes of the Asia-Pacific each year, and the people of Pacific Islands sit right in the middle of it.” The Pacific Island Countries and Territories put together a land area of only 553,959 sq km, but an ocean expanse is more than 33 million sq km. Almost 4,000 miles and two oceans separate New Delhi from the closest Bharat’s interactions with the Pacific Islands. The historical link with this region was started in 1879, when Bharatiya workers were brought to Fiji to work on sugarcane plantations. Despite the distance, New Delhi showed a desire to forge closer ties with the Pacific Islands soon after Independence in 1947. In 1948, Bharat established a ‘Commission for the Government of Bharat’ in Fiji. Over period of time Bharat did not carve out stronger ties with the rest of smaller pacific nations.
The motive and desire for creating this forum of littoral states is of Modi, who is akin to promote stronger ties with Bharat, are many. This was started when PM visited Fiji last year. Modi is very hopeful about this forum and he said in his address at the summit, “This is the first regional summit that I am hosting in India. This one will always remain very special for me.”Addressing the leaders of the Pacific island nations, he said, “Ours is a partnership forged by shared aspirations and challenges. We have stood and will stand with you in international forums. India will support the realisation of your vision of Pacific Regionalism.” Modi also announced a hike in Grant-in-Aid from $125,000 to $200,000 annually to each of the islands for community projects selected by them and a trade office of the Pacific Island nations in New Delhi.
Bharat played its role of soft skills diplomacy which is one of the strengths of Bharatiya foreign policy under Modi. Modi also proposed setting up an Institute for Sustainable Coastal and Ocean Research in the region and a network of marine biology research stations on many island nations. He suggested that both sides could begin with research collaboration and capacity building with institutions in Bharat. He also offered holding an International Conference on “Ocean economy and Pacific Island Countries”.
The most important reasons for creating this forum is to meet challenges which emerging from China. China is not merely occupying the space in the sea lane but also challenging Bharat’s security. Looking into the larger game plan of future power sharing the maritime power could be more decisive. Another reason is its trade and strategic importance.
One of the major concerns of Bharat’s foreign policy is increasing Chinese feat in the Indian Ocean, the Modi initiative in the Act East and extension up to the Pacific Nations were born out by the desire of meeting somehow Chinese challenges. Bharat is far behind against China but nevertheless, Bharat is ready to bridge the strategic gap with China. China has engaged with the smallest of nations while Bharat has had a hands-off approach till now.
The meeting with island nations is very important because they have been looking to Bharat to play a major role. After trying to keep pace with China in relations with Africa and Central Asia, Bharat is now trying to match it neighbour’s growing footprint in the South Pacific. Unfortunately Bharat does not have a consolidated South Pacific strategy. Instead, it approaches the region as an extension of its ‘Look East’ policy, originally conceptualised in the early 1990s to boost engagement with Southeast Asia. The lack of attention to the area is reflected in Bharat’s inconsistent diplomatic representation in the region. While China has a major diplomatic mission in almost every Pacific Island Country (PIC) that recognises it, Bharat has only two High Commissions in the 14 PICs: Fiji, because of its sizable Bharat’s diaspora, and Papua New Guinea, because of trade and minerals. Bharat is represented in the rest of the 12 PICs though a “subregional” approaches.
The earlier governments in Bharat never looked into forging larger forum in the pacific regions beyond Fiji. Connections with Fiji were also due to Bharatiya Diaspora not because of its strategic importance. Now this government is opening up to all the 14 littoral states of South Pacific Ocean. Bharat has begun charting out a plan for forging bilateral and regional ties with these island nations where as China has significantly expanded its foothold in the region.
The number counting is equally important for Bharat. As Bharat is looking for a permanent seat in the Security Council and other international forum, these 14 Pacific Island Countries (PICs) play a significant role in deciding international institutional legitimacy. There is enormous scope for closer economic, political, and strategic ties between Bharat and the South Pacific. These countries are equally keen to support Bharat as a balancing power in the region. The agenda of Bharat on climate change also promotes the cause of smaller pacific states which are fighting for their survival due to the rise of sea waves. These are extremely low lying littoral states merely few feet above the sea level.
The new global imperatives, the emergence of Bharat as a fast growing economy and its increasing global influence provides both Bharat and the PICs the opportunity to engage more deeply in trade and investment. It is also possible for Bharat to increase its aid to the Pacific in the technical, educational, scientific and physical infrastructure sectors. PICs should note that Bharat’s import from PICs is higher than its exports. While the bulk of Bharat’s imports from PICs are small (gold, copper ores, timber, copra, marine products, coffee, vanilla and cocoa), there is always potential of more exports to Bharat. Most of the Bharat’s imports are from PNG. Fiji, unfortunately, has not looked at Bharat as a market for its exports.
There are many areas where Bharat can cooperate and engage with the Pacific. PICs are constantly looking for better, cheaper consumer goods, and Bharat does have a comparative advantage in supplying them. Bharat should not look at the Pacific as a small market. Instead, it should look at the Pacific, including Australia and New Zealand, and consider a combined population of more than 30 million which it can exploit for its export opportunities.
As the US power is declining in the pacific and China is replacing not merely US but Australia and New Zealand, it becomes more important to move fast into pacific regions. In coming years, an increase in the economic mass of China and Bharat will intensify their gravitational pull and most certainly reconfigure the geopolitical space in the littoral of the Indian Ocean and the Asia-Pacific. This would mean a restructuring of the relationships among major powers and regional actors. The most important ‘strategic tussle’ in our littoral and the maritime world will be that between China and Bharat.
As C Raja Mohan pointed out, “If the Modi Doctrine persists, then about a quarter century of “looking East” is truly set to be followed by a long-term period of “acting East.” There are, however, major challenges that have to be met in order to keep up with Modi’s diplomatic pace. While it is easy to declare that Bharat’s “Look East” policy is now “Act East,” implementation and coordination of the same within Bharat’s diplomatic levels is a major challenge. If it done as it has been conceptualised by the Bharatiya Prime Minister, Bharat will have strong feet in the South Pacific Ocean.
Dr Satish Kumar (The writer is a Head Centre for International Relations, Central University of Jharkhand, Ranchi)