Cooperation in space technology and boosting presence in the critical Asia-Pacific theatre for commerce and security are the compelling reasons for New Delhi to reach out to the small island countries in the Pacific Ocean rim. Small Pacific island country, Fiji hosted Bharat’s scientists to track Bharat’s first inter-planetary Mars Orbiter Mission – Mangalyaan – that was launched in November 2013 and was successful in first attempt. Bharat has plans to launch a satellite exclusively for South Asian (SAARC) countries for forecasting weather and natural disasters and helping agricultural production. It has also extended its cooperation to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and intends to do so for the Pacific Islands.
Also it is the appropriate time for Bharat to seize the opportunity of extending its outreach to the Pacific Islands as mega regional trade blocs that exclude New Delhi like, Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Asia-Pacific FTA are in the offing. The TPP has proposed several stringent standards that may not be suitable to Bharat. Moreover, the US has considered TPP as “companion agreement” to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – another mega trade arrangement under negotiation that include US and the European Union.
Bharat is not a member of either Pacific Economic Cooperation Council (PECC) or the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) – a forum for discussing trade liberalisation, but without binding commitments so far. However, in the last APEC Summit, China mooted the proposal for converting this forum into a binding trade arrangement through Asia-Pacific Free Trade Area (APFTA). Thus all these attempts can be viewed as shrinking New Delhi’s presence in the region.
Modi government’s renaming Bharat’s Look East Policy to Act East Policy is an added assertion of its proactive engagement in the area. India-ASEAN Summit level talks, Bharat’s presence in East Asia Summit process Asia-Europe Summit (ASEM) and its involvement in several ASEAN+6 process like ADMM++, ARF are demonstration of Bharat’s presence in the critical Asia-Pacific theatre that has greater presence of rival powers like US, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia.
Bharat has FTA with ASEAN and has bilateral relations with the South East Asian countries. Bharat’s recent attempt to involve lesser developed ASEAN countries like Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam (CLMV) into the regional value chain is a step in the right direction. It is a party to the negotiations for Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) that respects the centrality of ASEAN in this ASEAN+6 process.
Bharat is a dialogue partner with the Pacific Island Forum (PIF), a political grouping that includes Australia and New Zealand along with 14 independent Pacific Ocean island states. However, without disturbing its relationship with PIF, New Delhi launched the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) that includes 14 independent Pacific island states, but excludes Australia and New Zealand. Fiji has already initiated a regional body, Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF) that constitutes of 10 regional players, excluding Australia and New Zealand. PIDF leaders are slated to meet for the third summit level talks in Suva in Fiji in the first week of September.
The first summit-level meeting of FIPIC was held during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Fiji last year. Prime Minister Modi has assured that the second FIPIC Summit meeting will be held in one of the coastal states in India. The FIPIC Summit is a format of 1+4 i.e. Head of State or Government plus four others. FIPIC includes 14 Pacific island states like Fiji, Cook Islands, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. FIPIC has, however, excluded Timor Leste which is a member of PIDF and New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Tokelau who are associate members of PIF and Wallis and Futuna, American Samoa, Guam and Northern Marianas who are observers to PIF.
Bharat has a total trade of about $ 300 million with the Pacific Islands, which is much below the potential given the fact that these islands present scope for trading in marine resources, agro-produces, coconut, coir, oil and natural gas, mineral resources. Cooperation in energy trade, blue economy, renewable energy and climate change are vital in Bharat’s interests. Eleven out of 12 Pacific island nations openly support Bharat’s candidature for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. Bharat has been extending development assistance to these countries and is planning to set up IT centres and network for tele-medicine and tele-education. Thus Bharat’s presence in Asia-Pacific theatre can become stronger with cooperation with Pacific Islands.
Ashok B Sharma (The writer is a senior columnist)