Prime Minister Narendra Modi”s recent visit to Papua New Guinea – the first by any Indian premier – coincided with the US inking a defence agreement with the Pacific island nation. Pacific Island countries (PIC) have emerged as a strategic battleground between the Democratic World and China, with China trying to peel away some PICs in recent years. China inked its own security pact with the Solomon Islands last year. If the Chinese are able to establish a strong foothold in the islands, it would create a serious strategic-security headache for the free world in the south Pacific.
India to focus on development
India and the democratic world teaming up in the PIC region is a good idea. While USA can provide security guarantees to the islands, India can position itself as a reliable development partner. This was the thrust of Prime Minster Modi’s 12-point action plan announced at the 3rd Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation Summit. India is rightly championing a demand driven cooperation model that doesn’t burden the island nations.
PM Modi’s 12-point action plan
-100-bed specialty hospital in Fiji
-IT, cyber security training hub in PNG
-100 Sagar Amrut Scholarships
-Jaipur foot camp in PNG by year-end
-FIPIC SME development project
-Solar project for Govt buildings
-Desalination units for water
-Sea ambulances for PIC
-Emergency helpline no.
-Jan Aushadhi Kendras
India’s well-calculated engagement
Prime Minister Modi’s 12-point action plan showcased India’s non-intrusive and accommodating approach. As the island nations remain cautious about becoming entangled in the power dynamics between the United States and China, India finds itself in a favorable position to pursue its objectives in the South Pacific. By charting a benign course and avoiding excessive demands, India stands to advance its goals in the region effectively.
The Pacific Island Countries (PIC) were once considered geographically distant, situated on the opposite side of the globe. Given Fiji’s substantial Indian-origin population, New Delhi has consistently aimed to strengthen diplomatic ties with nations in this region. India responded by establishing the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) in 2014. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Papua New Guinea for the third FIPIC summit emphasised India’s commitment to Pacific outreach.
Chinese military and economic coercion
Last April, China and the Solomon Islands signed a security cooperation agreement allowing Chinese forces to make ship visits and stopovers there. China’s advances in the Pacific have become a key concern for democratic world. Foreign Ministers of ten Pacific island nations have failed to endorse a proposed security cooperation deal with China after a meeting with China.
Chinese economic coercion in the region is well known. Chinese political warfare is a serious threat, overfishing in the EEZs of Pacific States is endangering food security of this region.
China’s proposed security deal with Pacific Islands fails
Foreign Ministers of ten Pacific island nations have failed to endorse a proposed security cooperation deal with China after a meeting with China’s top diplomat in Fiji. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi used a video link on May 30, 2022, for the meeting with his counterparts from Fiji as well as from Samoa, Tonga, Kiribati, the Solomon Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia, as part of his ten-day tour through the region.
The officials discussed China’s proposed “Common Development Vision” document, but did not immediately endorse the document. Wang has tried to ease concerns over China’s motives in the Pacific islands,
Last April, China and the Solomon Islands signed a security cooperation agreement allowing Chinese forces to make ship visits and stopovers there. China’s advances in the Pacific have become a key concern for the democratic world.
USA response to Chinese inroads
The Pacific islands are divided into three groups – Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia. Traditionally, the US has focused on the first group while relying on Australia and New Zealand for the remaining two in diplomatic and military affairs.
Washington now has plan to open new Embassies and US$810 million strategy for Pacific as island nations become key arena for Chinese intrusions.
Keeping China at bay
In a rare tandem move to minimise Chinese influence, the US and India held parallel summits with 14 Pacific Island countries (PICs) on the same day in Papua New Guinea (PNG) capital Port Moresby. PM Narendra Modi announced a 12-point action plan ranging from steps to boost healthcare infrastructure in the islands to setting up a regional IT and cyber security hub and providing desalination units to address water scarcity, while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, standing in for President Joe Biden, inked pacts in defence and security areas with PNG.
The Quad meeting held on Saturday in Japan was also aimed at keeping China at bay in introducing high technology in these island countries.
Reining in China
Addressing Chinese military reach, political warfare, economic coercion and overfishing in the Pacific states requires a comprehensive approach from the democratic world.
Strengthen diplomatic engagement Democracies should actively engage with Pacific island nations to strengthen diplomatic ties. This includes regular high-level visits, increased diplomatic representation, fostering dialogue on security and economic cooperation.
Alternative development sssistance
Democracies should provide alternative sources of development assistance to Pacific island nations, focusing on sustainable development, infrastructure projects and capacity-building initiatives. This can help reduce their reliance on China and mitigate the risks of economic coercion.
Support good governance & rule of law
Encourage transparency, accountability, and good governance practices within Pacific island nations. Democracies should provide technical assistance and capacity building to strengthen institutions, promote the rule of law, and combat corruption.
Enhance Maritime Security Cooperation Democratic nations should bolster maritime security cooperation with Pacific island states through joint patrols, information sharing, and capacity building. This can help address concerns related to illegal fishing, smuggling, and other illicit activities in the region. The USA has recently signed one such agreement.
Indian way ahead in PIC countries
For India, it is crucial for the ongoing initiatives to maintain their momentum. The geographical distance between India and the Pacific Islands Cooperation (PIC) can create a sense of complacency, which can hinder progress. China, on the other hand, possesses greater financial resources, making it better prepared for the enduring strategic competition.
In order to counter Chinese influence effectively or exert strategic pressure on China, India must adopt consistent outreach policies towards its crucial partner nations.
It is essential for India to focus on long-term economic growth, which will enable it to establish a robust maritime presence and incorporate it into its foreign policy. By bolstering its economy, India can strengthen its position and enhance its ability to navigate the complex dynamics of the strategic contest.
It is crucial for democratic nations including India to work collaboratively and sustain long-term engagement to counter Chinese influence effectively and protect the interests of Pacific island states. Democracies should coordinate their actions and strategies to present a united front against Chinese political warfare and economic coercion. This can include sharing intelligence, coordinating diplomatic efforts, and aligning policies to counter China’s influence in the region.