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India and the Pacific Islands: A Strategic Friendship

At first glance, India and the Pacific Islands appear to have very little in common. One is a country striving to be a regional superpower, valiantly competing with China for hegemon status, with a rapidly growing population and a strong yet divided civil society. The other is a group of the most geographically remote countries in the world, not considered powerful nor important and with the threat of climate change so imminent that entire communities are already being relocated. Yet despite their stark differences, India and the Pacific Islands have begun cooperating in a number of sectors and have introduced joint mechanisms for dialogue.

Since being elected to office in May of 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sustained a focus on strengthening diplomatic ties in the Asia Pacific region. India adopted the ‘Look East’ policy back in 1991, but prior to Modi, this Eastward focus tended to stop at Australia and was partly used as a tool to improve India’s relationship with ASEAN. Yet in 2014, Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Fiji in thirty-three years, and soon after jointly founded the Forum for India Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC), with membership of fourteen Pacific Island Nations.

Although the dialogue mechanism reflects an intention on the part of the Modi government to strengthen their engagement in the Pacific, it also reflects the growing level of independence and self-sufficiency that Pacific Islanders are striving for, particularly in response to relations with Australia.

The Pacific Island Countries have been establishing more diplomatic links in the region, particularly with China, Indonesia, South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore. These newfound diplomatic links have redefined trading opportunities in the region, with a growing number of ASEAN countries becoming export markets for the Pacific Islands, and the Melanesian Spearhead Group last week announcing a new drive to promote Melanesian made goods to the region. India provides fertile ground for the export of cheap consumer goods from the Pacific Island Countries, suggesting that the FIPIC is as much a reflection of Indian strategy as it is of Pacific Island strategy.

In August of this year, representatives of the FIPIC met in Jaipur and identified several key areas of cooperation, including the Ocean Based Economy, oil and natural gas mining, IT and collaboration on space endeavours. Most interestingly however, Indian representatives strongly encouraged all Pacific Island Nations to voice their concerns at the Paris Climate Conference. This show of support from India is likely to worsen the existing divide between Pacific Island Nations and Australia on climate policy. Pacific leaders have been expressing their disenchantment with Australia’s climate inaction and have called for Australia’s membership status in the Pacific Islands Forum to be reconsidered. Thus as diplomatic ties with Australia weaken diplomatic cooperation with India appears to be only getting stronger.

In return for India’s support of a strong Pacific voice at COP21, all Pacific leaders present at the FIPIC meeting in Jaipur proclaimed their support for India’s quest to have a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Thus mutual benefit would appear to be the overarching theme of FIPIC and Australia’s absence in the discussions has become glaringly obvious.

Australia invests substantially in the Pacific, with Senator Richard Colbeck announcing on 31 October that Australia would increase its contribution to the Pacific Islands Trade and Invest body to $2.5 million per annum. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade also invests in the region in cooperation with the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. Yet the issue of climate change has severely weakened Australia’s reputation in the Pacific, and the question remains of whether investment in trade and development can conceal Australia’s lack of environmental action.

As the FIPIC continues to establish itself as a regional dialogue mechanism, the impacts of stronger diplomatic ties between India and the Pacific Island Countries is likely to have more direct implications for Australia. Pacific Island Countries are already recognising that India is a key strategic partner in international discussions, as well as in strengthening trading opportunities and achieving economic growth. Australia's presence in the Pacific region is becoming increasingly tested, due largely to inaction on climate change, making new diplomatic ties for Pacific Island Countries a key area of research for Indo-Pacific scholars.

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Image Credit: Narendra Modi (cropped) (Wikimedia: Creative Commons)


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