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Strategic stakes in South Pacific

Amid US-China competition, India needs to look beyond its focus on providing assistance

Strategic stakes in South Pacific

PRIORITY: The third edition of the FIPIC summit showed India’s deepening interest in the South Pacific region. ANI

Vivek Katju

Former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs

THE term ‘Indo-Pacific’ is, by now, firmly rooted in the international strategic discourse. It has replaced the earlier US formulation of ‘Asia-Pacific’. Ironically, in US usage, ‘Asia-Pacific’ stopped at the limits of Myanmar, thereby indicating how Washington viewed Asia. However, from 2017, the then Trump administration began to use ‘Indo-Pacific’ to denote an integral security and economic linkage between the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions. A year later, the US renamed its Hawaii-based Pacific command as the Indo-Pacific command, signalling that its strategic view of the vast region within the space of the two great oceans had changed. This transformation was largely on account of China’s aggressive rise and India’s place in US thinking, including as a counterweight to China.

The Chinese are actively wooing South Pacific nations, which have accepted the Belt and Road Initiative embrace.

The Quad summit held on the sidelines of the G7 meeting in Japan last week illustrates the new paradigm and the conclusive shift from Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific. The leaders’ vision statement noted: “We acknowledge and respect the centrality, agency and leadership of regional institutions, including ASEAN, the Pacific Islands Forum and the Indian Ocean Rim Association, and will work in and alongside them to complement their efforts and advance our shared interests.”

In earlier times, when the concept was limited to Asia-Pacific, only the ‘centrality’ of ASEAN was stressed. Now the larger region has been given three distinct components: the Northern Pacific area, the South Pacific region and the countries bordering the Indian Ocean. India has interests in all three; the third edition of the summit of the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC), co-hosted by India and Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby on May 22, showed India’s deepening interest in the South Pacific region, though it is still unclear in what direction India wishes to take FIPIC.

India’s interest in the South Pacific during the post-colonial period was initially limited to its desire that ethnic Indians taken to Fiji under the indentured system got their democratic rights once the country became independent in 1970. It had little concern about developments in the island countries which were either under the US umbrella or under Australia’s or New Zealand’s influence. Also, there was insufficient knowledge about the enormous variety of the people who lived in the vastness of the South Pacific and its distinct regions of Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia. That was also the time of the Cold War, which impacted India’s views on these nations, though it did send experts to a few of them under the Indian Technical and Economic Assistance programme.

India reacted strongly to the two coups in Fiji in 1987, undertaken by Lt Col Sitiveni Rabuka against an elected government controlled by common Fijians and ethnic Indians. Rabuka was actually acting on behalf of Fiji’s traditional chiefs, who had led the country after independence. While the Commonwealth suspended Fiji, there was much sympathy in the South Pacific island countries and in Australia and New Zealand for ethnic Fijians as ethnic Indians were looked upon as interlopers. Ironically, today it is Rabuka who is the elected Prime Minister and is in alliance with the traditional party of ethnic Indians. He has apologised for the coups and the pain caused to the ethnic Indians. He also bestowed Fiji’s highest civilian award on Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Port Moresby. However, some ethnic Indians — admittedly associated with the 16-year rule of former Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, who also began as a coup-maker but introduced the Constitution in 2013 — worry that Rabuka wishes to turn the clock back. He is committed to restoring the constitutional status of the traditional chiefs and giving primacy to ethnic Fijians’ interests. It will, therefore, be prudent for India to advise Rabuka to avoid the pursuit of anti-ethnic Indian policies.

During the 36 years since the Rabuka coups, India’s position in global affairs and its international interests have to take into account factors beyond the concerns of the ethnic Indian Fijians. Hence, Modi’s decision to organise FIPIC in November 2014, when its first meeting was held in Fiji, was an act of substantial imagination. It was necessary to project India’s reach and its concerns for Pacific island countries on such crucial issues for them as climate change. It is this theme which he took forward during the Port Moresby meeting when he assured their leaders that he will project the concerns of the Global South during the G20 summit in New Delhi. He responded well to the request of the co-chair, Papua New Guinea PM James Marape, who asked him to look after the welfare of the vulnerable island countries. Modi also did well to describe these countries as ‘large ocean countries’, as indeed they are. In time, when technology advances sufficiently to exploit mineral and other resources on the ocean floors, these countries will acquire greater importance. Modi also announced a slew of projects for the region in the health and education sectors. It will require special efforts to translate his promises early into reality as India’s record of project implementation abroad remains patchy — and that is putting it kindly.

It is because of the current and future importance of the South Pacific region that it has become an area of contestation, including in the security sector, between China and the US and its allies. The Chinese are actively wooing the South Pacific island countries, which have accepted the Belt and Road Initiative embrace. The US has the advantage of military access rights in Australia and some Micronesian states. Significantly, President Biden was also to hold a meeting with these countries on the same day as Modi did in Papua New Guinea, but Secretary of State Antony Blinken had to fill in for him as Biden cut short his trip to the region. That did not, however, prevent a military agreement from being signed between the US and Papua New Guinea on May 22.

The inescapable question for India is how it wishes to look upon the South Pacific in strategic terms. For that, it has to go beyond the optics of FIPIC and its present focus on assistance.

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