By Aniket Bhavthankar*
In November 2014, after 33 long years, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Fiji, a South Pacific archipelago of about 300 islands, where 37% of its 900,000 population is of Indian origin. During this visit Modi mooted a concept of Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) in order to reach out to other Pacific Island Countries (PICs). The first summit of FIPIC was held in Fiji in 2014. FIPIC has India and 14 South Pacific Islands like Fiji, Cook Islands, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.
The second summit of FIPIC was held in Jaipur on August 21, 2015. Agenda of the summit touched upon several issues like climate change, blue economy, space collaboration and trade to mention a few of them. Minimum distance between India and the South Pacific Islands is around 11,000 km. Then why is India interested in these remote islands? To understand this we should know the geopolitical and geostrategic issues in the region.
Gravity of the world economy is shifting to the Asia-Pacific region and PICs sit at the pivot of the Pacific. Though land area and population of the South Pacific region is minuscule, it has abundant resources in its store. For example, land area of Kiribati is merely 810 sq. km but its Exclusive Economic Zone is more than 3.5 million sq. km (greater than India’s land area). Until very recently South Pacific Islands were managed by the Western world with the help of Australia and New Zealand. Growing economic and strategic opportunities pushed them to bypass regional big powers Australia and New Zealand and have bilateral relations with powerful countries in the world.
PICs can offer sea lanes of communication and ports, access to fisheries, military bases and decisive votes in international for UN Security Council reforms and its expansion will be discussed and some creditworthy proposals are likely to be taken up at the upcoming UN General Assembly session. Of the 14 PICs, 12 are UN members; and 10 states have announced their direct support for India’s bid for permanent seat in the UNSC and one state supports G4 resolution (thus indirectly supporting India).
Of the 14 PICs, Fiji is the most important Island. In 2006, the Western world boycotted Fiji due to a military coup. China took advantage of this and cultivated relations with Fiji and other states in the region. China wooed this region with aid diplomacy, investing in the region to get access for building military bases – the most important aspect of which is signals intelligence monitoring. China is also seeking naval access to the region’s ports and exclusive economic zones. Washington and other important capitals in the world are alarmed due to increasing Chinese interest in the region.
India also took note of this. Fiji hosts significant Indian diaspora; Fiji is the hub of the Pacific and provides an important link to most of the PICs. Hence India is spending time and money to serve stronger ties with Fiji.
During his visit to Fiji last year, Modi offered Indian help to build a Digital Fiji. India had announced a number of new initiatives and mutually beneficial cooperation programmes during the Suva summit last year. PICs have also welcomed Indian’s assistance of tele-medicine, tele-education, space cooperation, and technical aid for bolstering democracy and community activities. PICSs are eager to have a stronger Indian presence in the region. They do not want to remain over dependent on Chinese support. However, we should know that China has a huge lead over India in its relations with this region. It is not advisable to engage in a zero-sum game with China in this regard.
In Jaipur, India assured PICs of realization of Pacific regionalism. To exploit economic potential of the region, India offered to help them with their hydrography and coastal surveillance via Indian Navy. Geographical location of PICs is very relevant in the monitoring of space. India is one of the leading players in space technology and offered help in preparing an inventory of land and water resources, surveying of forest resources and its management and, in disaster management support. India will also establish a satellite monitoring station over one of the Fiji’s Islands, to track its own satellite independently over the Pacific. Climate change is a major cause of concern for this region. India is ready to share its expertise in mitigation measures and renewable technologies to overcome hurdles faced by PICs.
India, being a maritime country needs to have a coherent maritime strategy. India has just started working on it and views the vast region from Madagascar to Marshall Islands as a one single coherent region – the Indo-Pacific. To make it a success, it is important to reach out to sub-regions and small countries of the world which lack economic and military power. Due to this, prospective countries may look towards India as a viable alternative. The government’s Act East Policy is a sub-part of a grand Indo-Pacific strategy. Strengthening relations with the PICs is pertinent for its success. The summit of FIPIC is a part of India’s extended ‘Act East’ Policy. Through FIPIC, India tried to redefine its core national interest based on a broader geographical canvas and to portray itself as a leading player pushing for stability in the Indo-Pacific.
*Aniket Bhavthankar is a Research Associate at the Society for Policy Studies. His focus areas include India’s Maritime Security and the Arctic region. He can be reached at: [email protected]