By Monish Gulati*
India will host the second edition of the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) in Jaipur on August 21, with all 14 countries of the region attending. This comes months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi had addressed the first FIPIC on a visit to Suva, Fiji in November last year.
Of the 14 Pacific Island Countries or PICs, three are expected to be represented by their respective presidents, one by its vice president, seven island nations are sending their prime ministers, one its deputy prime minister and two are sending a senior minister to the meeting. Prime Minister Modi’s trip to Fiji in November had been followed two days later by a three-day visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who focused on China’s goal of becoming more involved in the Pacific.
Two issues have been salient in defining PICs relations with the rest of the world; climate change and provision of ‘geostrategic services’ for economic aid. These ‘services’ include use as military bases or missile launching/testing sites, for denying air and sea access to donors’ rivals or voting for donor interests at multilateral forums. In the case of India, the diaspora has been an added dimension.
The US has enduring interests in the PICs as a resident Pacific power, with territories in American Samoa, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands. The latter two territories are already involved in the military aspect of US’ rebalance to the Asia Pacific and its plans to reposition assets from Okinawa and elsewhere in the region to this area. In addition, the US has compacts of free association with three PICs — the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau, which further enhances US influence and presence in the Pacific. By virtue of these special relationships, the US is cognizant of the unique role of Pacific Island states in combating climate change and sustainability of the oceans. The US also recognises that outside players are increasingly competing for influence in the region.
The US view of the rest of the Pacific over decades has rested on the assumption of Australian leadership and that Australia’s primacy in the Pacific in this regard will be sustained in the near term. After its announcement on May 4 this year, Papua New Guinea is set to become the 12th regional state to join Australia’s Pacific Maritime Security Program, which is geared toward combating illegal fishing and providing humanitarian assistance. Australia is the largest donor in the Pacific; $6.83 billion in aid from 2006 to 2013, with the US a far second with $1.77 billion. New Zealand gave $1.1 billion in aid over the same period, making it the fourth-largest donor while Japan (third largest) and China (fifth largest) provided $1.23 billion and $1.06 billion. The US aid has remained largely focused on the freely associated states of Micronesia. India provides grant-in-aid of $200,000 to each of the PICs every year.
A major discordant note in the geopolitics of the PICs has been the belief of Fiji’s political leadership that Australia and New Zealand (ANZ) have treated them unfairly through the imposition of hurtful, but largely ineffectual sanctions following the 2006 coup in Fiji. This had two consequences; increased Chinese clout in the region and the fracturing of regional institutions. The imposition of sanctions expectedly diminished ANZ role in Fiji. This created a vacuum which China readily filled. Fiji is the only country in the Pacific where Chinese aid ($339 million in 2014) outweighs that of Australia ($252 million in 2013).
Fiji’s estrangement from the ANZ also saw the fracturing of regional institutions, especially the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), over which ANZ have traditionally held sway. Fiji’s refusal to rejoin the PIF was followed by its efforts to enhance the stature of the sub regional Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) and creation of Pacific Island Development Forum (PIDF), as a counter to the PIF. China’s burgeoning influence in the Pacific did not cause this fracturing of regional institutions, but contributed to it.
Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama on May 6 this year reiterated that he will not attend any PIF leaders’ meetings as long as ANZ retain full membership of PIF, and that they should opt for the status of development partners like China, the EU, Japan, and the US. His comments came at a meeting aimed at forging a draft agreement to institutionalize the PIDF; which has succeeded despite initial opposition from ANZ. The success of PIDF highlights, according to Gregory Poling of the CSIS, the perceived shortcomings of the PIF, including the insularity of the leaders’ meetings, a lack of consultation with nongovernmental stakeholders, the perceived high-handedness of donors, and a seeming unwillingness, especially in Canberra, to confront the existential threat that climate change poses to low-lying Pacific nations.
The Pacific Islands have emerged as a global ‘moral compass’ on climate change, with Samoa hosting a once-in-a-decade UN Small Island Developing States conference in September 2014 and Marshall Islands president opening on September 18, the UN climate change summit in New York which called for greater global action on climate change. Earlier, representatives from 15 Pacific Island nations and territories on April 30 wrapped up the annual Oceania 21 Summit in New Caledonia with a call for the international community to undertake more ambitious action on climate change. Officials at the summit approved the Lifou Declaration, which demands that world leaders commit to reduce greenhouse gas emissions when they meet for the UN Climate Convention in Paris in December.
The president of the low-lying Kiribati on August 13 called for a global moratorium on new coal mines to slow global warming and a creeping rise in world sea levels. Kiribati’s 1,00,000 people live on 32 atolls in the central Pacific, most of which are less than six metres above sea level. Last year, Kiribati bought 6,000 acres of land on higher ground in Fiji to back up food production, under threat from erosion and storms blowing salt water onto farmland. There has been opposition to US military plans in Marianas. Local civil society groups and officials in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) have stepped up their criticism of the US Pacific Command’s plans to expand training facilities on Tinian and Pagan islands, including ranges to drop inert bombs on Pagan.
Marshall Islands, with a population of 70,000, had made an impassioned plea to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) seeking initiation of proceedings against India for not pursuing nuclear disarmament, and India has to file its response by September 16. Marshall Islands strongly feels that the nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan, both being non-signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), could pose a huge danger to world peace. Then of course there is a question of India’s carbon emissions and the projected sea level rise due to climate change.
India has announced a Special Adaptation Fund of $1 million to provide technical assistance and training for capacity building to the islands. India is looking at cooperation in use of space technology applications and for sharing data that could be used for monitoring climate change, disaster risk reduction and management, resource management.
Given the choppy nature of politics amongst the PICs, it is to the credit of Indian diplomacy than we continue to engage with them en bloc, a privilege that still eludes the regional powers.