India’s Pacific vision
21 Aug 2015|

Le Hawa Mahal (Jaipur)

Leaders and officials of 14 Pacific Island countries will convene in Jaipur today for the 2nd Forum for India–Pacific Islands Cooperation. The first was held last year in Fiji, in conjunction with the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi after the G20 summit in Brisbane. Modi’s government sees increased engagement with the island countries of the Pacific as part of a wider agenda designed to enhance India’s global profile.

It’s too simplistic to depict this as simply an attempt to counter the influence of China in the region, although that’s almost certainly part of the reasoning behind it. In addition, it’s part of India’s ‘Look East’ policy and an aspect of India seeking to establish its global presence.

India has increased its presence in the region in recent times, and forums such as these indicate that we can expect that to continue. Unsurprisingly, India’s strongest bilateral relationship within the region is with Fiji but it’s reasonable to expect that this will provide a platform for increased engagement with other Pacific Island countries as well as regional organisations. The agenda for the Jaipur summit indicates that this engagement will be based around trade, development partnerships, people to people links and mutual support for issues of global diplomacy.

In 2012, trade between India and the Pacific islands region amounted to US$228 million and the Indian government is looking for further growth. It’s somewhat surprising that the Indian financial sector isn’t more active in Papua New Guinea, given the growing demand for credit there. Whilst in India, Pacific leaders will visit one of the world’s most famous tourist destinations, the Taj Mahal, and we would expect that increasing the number of Indian tourists visiting the Pacific Islands region will also be an issue for discussion.

India currently provides US$200,000 of development assistance to the each of the countries participating in the summit and is keen to promote the south–south nature of this engagement. New Delhi has experience of addressing key development challenges that affect the countries of the Pacific Island region that she can share, including combating gender-based violence, improving service delivery to rural and remote areas and disaster preparedness and recovery.

There are a number of significant diplomatic issues that will inform both formal and informal interactions at this summit. India is seeking a seat on the UN Security Council and appears to have secured 11 votes from among the Pacific Island countries. And the Indian government will no doubt be using this meeting to lobby for further support in this endeavour.

We can also expect the leaders of the Pacific Island region to use this opportunity to seek Indian support for their position in relation to climate change action ahead of the Paris talks later this year. Not only does India have a powerful voice in its own right, but the leaders of the Pacific should be exhorting it to exercise influence within the BRICS grouping. Related to this, but possibly more problematic from a diplomatic standpoint is the extent to which Kiribati President Anote Tong’s call for a moratorium on new coal mines can be meaningfully discussed with the Indian leadership, including their minister for coal.

Of no little significance is the influence that India, as the world’s largest democracy, can bring to bear in the realm of supporting Pacific Island countries in maintaining their commitment to democratic principles and the rule of law. There are numerous instances of governments in the region adopting positions and policies that have autocratic tendencies and there are particular concerns around the state of democracy and the rule of law in Nauru. Indian politics since 1947 have proved complex, messy and, in some instances, dangerous but overall a commitment to democratic governance has prevailed and this is an opportunity for the Delhi leadership to reinforce the importance of democracy for our region.

The Jaipur summit also provides Pacific leaders with an opportunity to discuss a number of issues among themselves, with a view to what they want to see as a result of next month’s Forum leaders’ meeting in Port Moresby.

Fiji’s prime minister may try to enlist support from other leaders for his suggestion that the membership of the Pacific Islands Forum be changed to exclude Australia and New Zealand, although this has failed to get much traction thus far. Similarly, leaders may use this opportunity to seek to persuade PM Bainimarama to cement his country’s post-election rehabilitation by joining them in PNG in September. They could also discuss the initiatives that they can expect to have put to them following the process envisaged by the Framework for Pacific Regionalism.

Of these, the one that is most politically and diplomatically sensitive is the issue of West Papua. The United Liberation Movement for West Papua has already commenced lobbying for leaders to instigate a fact-finding mission to the Papuan provinces.

Meetings such as these provide important opportunities for Pacific leaders to further national and regional diplomatic initiatives and they need to be utilised strategically and effectively.