India Acting East: Looking further in the Pacific
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Papua New Guinea to co-host the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation Summit 2023. The summit is significant in building strong multilateral relations between India and the fourteen Pacific Island nations.
Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister James Marape touched Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's feet as he received a traditional welcome to the island nation.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Papua New Guinea marks an important juncture in India’s increasing engagement with the Pacific Islands. This visit holds importance in many respects. Historically, this marks the first ever visit by an Indian Prime Minister to the island and strategically, it lays the foundation of what could possibly be one of the most significant bilateral partnerships of India in the context of the Indo-Pacific. In a broader context, the Forum for India -Pacific Islands Cooperation Summit 2023 would begin the dialogue between India and the fourteen Pacific Island nations.
This year’s summit would see participation from all the fourteen island nations which in itself is a rare opportunity due to the persisting connectivity issues faced by the region in bringing together all the member states. Hosting the summit together with the leadership of Papua New Guinea this year gives India the impetus to work towards building deeper cooperation with all the member states.
India’s interests in greater engagements with the Pacific island nations is rooted in the conception of the Indo-Pacific as a geopolitical entity. As the region begins to gain more and more significance in international relations, it becomes important for India to be able to expand its footprint not just in terms of influence but also in terms of building long term strategic and cultural partnerships with these nations. India and Australia achieved this goal together over the last decade by becoming the epitome of regional integration and bilateral relationship. Now it is also time to look towards these island nations that hold immense potential in terms of geological resources but need the infrastructural and economic investments needed to realise this potential. India can and will become a strong driver of development and opportunity in this regard. This suggests a relationship of mutual benefit that can culminate with this engagement.
Why does this cooperation matter?
“Free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific” and “multilateralism” were the words echoed by the Indian Prime Minister while addressing the summit. India’s Act East policy is in action as it brings together the countries of the Indo-Pacific for direct cooperation and building a strong multilateral system in the region through this summit.
Figure 1.1: The Pacific Islands are divided into three regions- Micronesia, Milanesia and Polynesia.
Source: Foster, Sophie and West, Francis James. "Pacific Islands". Encyclopedia Britannica, 22 May. 2023, https://www.britannica.com/place/Pacific-Islands. Accessed 22 May 2023.
When it comes to the utility of a strong relationship with the Pacific islands, not only India but the US and China have also been aiming to expand their influence on the region further. Due to geographical proximity, Australia and the US have wielded a high level of political and economic influence on these island nations; however it is the presence of China that has raised many eyebrows on the Indian side. It is not the first time that India has expressed its interest in the island nations and it would not be the last time as well. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Fiji for the previous edition of the FIPIC summit in 2014 had also sparked the interest in the region and the spark is only growing with this year’s edition. The very establishment of the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation Summit goes on to show the active role that India seeks to play in the region not just for exerting its influence as a strong economic power in the region but also by bringing together all the island nations and creating room for multilateral dialogue.
The China factor
Coming back to the strategic angle, the summit and the visits are also a strong message to China. As a perpetual threat in the region, China is building inroads in the region by increased economic and military activity in the region. Beijing has been providing military aid to the pacific island nations over the past years to counter the influence of the west, particularly the United States.
The China-Solomon Islands security pact brought this relationship to the forefront however, China has been quietly engaging with the pacific island states for quite some time. China has been sending military equipment and providing personnel training to the island nations since the past decades. In 2018, China pledged about $4.3 million to the armed forces of Fiji and about $18 million to Papua New Guinea over a period of 20 years.
Figure 1.1 China’s military aid in the region.
Source: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, https://www.sipri.org/commentary/blog/2022/chinas-military-aid-pacific
Australia, the US and India have all been highly cautious of the Chinese presence as it seeks to increase the threat perception of the region by upsetting the power balance even further. One can also assert that if Australia, India, Japan and the US could come together to balance the region against China, China would also be wary of this alliance in turn and may seek to increase its presence further.
This is particularly why the Indian presence in the Pacific islands holds so much importance. It is a message of peace and development for the pacific islands as India has engaged in providing developmental aid to the region over the past years but it is also a message of deterrence to the regional arch rival, China. It has been noted that India would be actively engaging with the Pacific island slates to aid in capacity building and loan assistance that would help in the economic development of these states. When it comes to these specific island states, as has been noted above Papua New Guinea is one of the major recipients of the Chinese military aid and concerns have also been raised about China seeking to build a military outpost in the island. Hence it becomes very important for India to build a strong bilateral partnership with the island nation as well. This is particularly why it is significant that India co-hosted this year’s FIPIC Summit alongside the leadership of Papua New Guinea.
Looking at the other stakeholder, the United States is also seeking to sign a significant security agreement with the island nations as a product of this summit. Even with the absence of the US President Joe Biden, it becomes clear that the United States is now laying priority to the island in the face of the Chinese threat. In this case, the alliance of QUAD could become a major driver of the security agenda in the region while the individual QUAD members continue building economic and even cultural ties with the island states.
The Pacific is the new theatre of geopolitical power play and India has a strong role in this regard. India’s partnerships in the diplomatic sphere could also transcend into the economic wherein apart from just providing developmental aid, India would also engage in active trade with the region. The Energy sector and renewable resources sector could see a massive boost with India’s engagement. India has already undertaken projects towards providing technological assistance for leveraging renewable energy such as solar energy and hydropower for the island nations. The Indian diaspora in the region is also very strong and it can aid in building cultural relations as well as people to people ties with the island nations that forms the foundation of a long standing partnership.
This summit hence becomes an important tool to highlight the leadership that India can provide for the South-South cooperation that is necessary for building peace and fostering development in the region.
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