On September 24, 2019, India and Pacific Islands Developing States (PSIDS) Leaders meeting was held on the sidelines of the 74th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) session in New York. At the meeting, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stressed that India is “committed to advancing development priorities of Pacific Island Countries (PICs)”. The meeting was attended by the heads of delegations of 12 PICs including Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea (PNG), Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. At the conclusion of the meeting the third Forum for India-Pacific Island Cooperation (FIPIC) Summit was announced to be held in Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, in the first half of 2020.
In recent years, there has been a gradual positive shift in India’s approach towards the PICs. This change can be attributed to various geopolitical, economic and strategic factors. Geostrategically, the PICs are a part of the larger Indo-Pacific region. As the global focus shifts to the Indo-Pacific, the South Pacific sub-region lying at the crossroads of strategically significant maritime trade routes, comprising small island countries with large EEZs is also attracting attention from regional and extra-regional powers.
India’s interaction with the region goes back to the colonial era, in the early 19th century when Indian workers were taken to the region as indentured plantation labourers, a large number of them settled there. In the post-colonial period, the Pacific region including the PICs did not figure prominently in India’s strategic thinking. However, as India looks beyond its immediate region, with strategic ambitions in the wider Indo-Pacific region, India’s approach towards the South Pacific is gradually changing. In recent years, New Delhi has been reaching out to these small island states, highlighting the government’s willingness for greater engagement particularly in the light of the reinvigorated Act East Policy. Given India’s renewed focus on the region, it is important to analyse the significant areas which can facilitate closer cooperation between India and the PICs.
India’s interaction with the PICs still largely driven by the presence of sizeable Indian Diaspora in the region; nearly 40 percent of Fiji’s population is of Indian origin and about 3000 Indians living in PNG at present. In terms of institutional engagements, India participates in the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) as one of the key dialogue partners of the Forum. The most important development in facilitating India’s interaction with the PICs in recent years has been the formation of action-oriented Forum for India and Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC).
FIPIC, a multinational grouping was launched during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Fiji in November 2014. The inaugural FIPIC summit, at the level of Heads of Government was held in Suva, Fiji, on November 19, 2014. Speaking at the first FIPC summit, PM Modi called for building closer partnerships with the PICs. A number of initiatives were announced during the inaugural summit. Recognizing climate change as a major issue of concern in the region, PM Modi announced a Special Adaptation Fund of US$1million to provide technical assistance and training for capacity building to the PICs. To enhance connectivity, a Pan Pacific Islands Project for E-network was announced. India also announced grant-in-aid of US$ 200,000 annually for each fourteen PIC. To augment trade relations between India and the Pacific Islands, setting up of a Trade Office in India at the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) was announced. Possibilities of joint research in the field of traditional medicine and healthcare were also proposed to be explored. Indian visa on arrival was announced to promote greater people to people contacts.
The second summit of the FIPIC Forum was hosted by India at Jaipur, Rajasthan, on 21-22 August 2015. Building on the first summit, discussions took place on various issues of significance to the members such as climate change, clean energy, food security and reform of the United Nations. The then Indian President Pranab Mukherjee welcoming the leaders said that “India wants to partner with the Small Island Developing countries in their quest for securing inclusive growth and sustained economic development”.[v] Mutually beneficial areas to strengthen trade and investments like “fisheries, agriculture, oil and natural gas, water desalination” were highlighted. Speaking at the summit PM Modi stressed that “trade, more than aid, is the enabler for development”.[vi] He emphasized the need for developing a closer partnerships between India and the Pacific Islands facilitated by shared aspirations and challenges. A significant increase in India’s grant-in-aid to the PICs from US$125,000 to US$200,000 was announced.
During the latest meeting in September 2019, PM Modi announced US$12 million grant (US$ 1 million to each PSIDS) towards the implementation of high impact developmental project in the area of their choice. This is in addition to the announcement made for a concessional Line of Credit of US$150 million which can be availed by these countries for undertaking solar, renewable energy and climate-related projects based on their requirements. While announcing the new initiatives PM Modi also emphasized that the “development policies need to be inclusive and sustainable to reduce inequality and contribute to the empowerment of people…..”.
The issues of mutual concerns for facilitating cooperation including trade and investment, sustainable development, blue economy, maritime security, disaster management, human resource development, people to people contacts will be explored further at the upcoming 3rd FIPIC summit.
In the light of recent developments, certain crucial areas can be identified for future cooperation between India and PICs. The PICs with their resource-rich EEZs can be attractive sources of natural resources like LNG and hydrocarbons to fuel India’s growing economy and can also provide new markets. India can engage with these countries particularly, given its own emphasise on the idea of ‘Blue Economy’.
It is also crucial to harness the resources in a sustainable manner to protect the environmental stability of the region. The geography of these island countries makes them vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate challenges. The increasing soil salinity due to the rising sea level threatens the low lying island states, also giving rise to the problem of displacement. Therefore, climate change and sustainable development are crucial areas of concern where a closer partnership can be developed for effective and concrete solutions. India has emphasized increasing the share of renewable energy in the energy mix to deal with impacts of climate change. India has organized training programmes for affordable renewable energy (solar) for elderly women from these island countries at Barefoot College in Rajasthan. An ‘India-Pacific Islands Sustainable Development Conference’, was also organized in Suva, Fiji from 25-26 May 2017. The conference focused on discussing the issues including the blue economy, adaptation-mitigation practices for climate change, disaster preparedness and health. The aims of sustainable development, economic growth, and strengthened security for all can very well be pursued by focusing on the ocean led development, under the framework of the ‘blue economy’.
Another significant area of cooperation is assistance and capacity building in disaster management. Most of the Pacific Island countries are prone to a variety of natural disasters, with widespread social, economic and environmental consequences. India can assist in building capacities of Disaster Risk Resilience. In September 2017, India launched Climate Early Warning Systems in seven PICs. India has regularly provided assistance in these counties to deal with consequences of frequent cyclones like the relief and rehabilitation grant was provided when Tropical Cyclone Hola hit Vanuatu in 2018.
In the field of healthcare and medicine, India plans to explore developing capacity for health services, set up a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant and the distribution centre in the Pacific Island region for access to affordable drug and has offered a Line of Credit for this project. India has also expressed willingness to provide necessary technical and developmental assistance for capacity building.
A major area where India needs to focus on strengthening ties with the PICs is economic and development cooperation. India has expressed willingness to support the development needs of these small island countries. Most of the economic activities in these countries fall under the unorganised sector. The development of small industries can speed up the process of economic development. India has provided financial assistance for the Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) sector in these countries, helping many small scale entrepreneurs to develop their own business.
The data shows that a large proportion of India’s trade with the region is mainly shared by a few countries like PNG, Fiji, Soloman Islands. The need is to focus on exploring complementarities in trade with the individual countries while at the same time also emphasising on the idea of inclusive economic cooperation with the region as a whole. To provide a boost to economic cooperation, FICCI launched the Business accelerator for FIPIC in September 2015, with the objectives of providing necessary information and facilitation to businessmen on both sides regarding prospects of trade and investment, facilitating meetings between the concerned businessmen and organising events/trade fairs. People to People (P2P) contacts will play an important role in augmenting relationships with the countries in the region. A focus on building upon historical-cultural connections, tourism and youth exchanges will facilitate greater P2P exchanges.
PICs while geographically small yet they have considerable economic, strategic and political significance in the international affairs. The recent efforts to engage with the region have brought India much closer to these countries. India’s approach towards the PICs focuses on a transparent, need-based approach and inclusive relationship with the region based on shared values and a shared future. The formation of FIPIC has given a much-needed push to India’s relations with the PICs. It has provided a platform to facilitate multilateral and multidimensional cooperation between India and these island countries. In the coming years India’s engagement with the PICs is expected to grow deeper with the third FIPIC summit scheduled to be held soon.