India increases its strategic antenna towards the Pacific Islands and pushes for Global South cooperation

by Balaji Chandramohan - 29 May, 2023, 12:00 440 Views 0 Comment

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Papua New Guinea heralded New Delhi’s new politico-military approach to the Pacific Islands and also enabled India to champion the cause of Global South as it wishes to play a major role in the international arena.

Prime Minister Modi received a special welcome in Papua New Guinea with his counterpart James Marape touching his feet.

To start with, Prime Minister Modi was able to win the hearts of the people of the Pacific Islands nations as he pledged to give more support in the health and information sector. Prime Minister Modi also pledged India’s support in key sectors such as healthcare and IT sector.

As a part of it, 100-bed regional super speciality hospital will be set up in Fiji was on the request from Suva. The same principle will be applied to the other 11 projects announced by Prime Minister Modi. These include a regional IT and cyber security training hub in Papua New Guinea, Jaipur Foot Camps, solar projects, desalination units, sea ambulances, dialysis units, and a round-the-clock helpline.

Prime Minister Modi was also accorded a 19-gun salute, guard of honor and ceremonial welcome apart from PM James Marape’s special gesture of receiving him at the airport. The visit assumes significance as Pacific Islands have witnessed increased competition among the other major powers such as China and the US which are vying for influence.

On the other hand, US President Joe Biden cancelled his scheduled visit to Papua New Guinea, however, it’s still felt that the US has increased its diplomatic and military footprint in the Pacific Islands.

US and India have increased their strategic presence in the Pacific Islands following China’s increased assertiveness in the region. Last year, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to the Pacific Islands was viewed with a lot of interest in New Delhi’s strategic circle which to a larger extent promoted India to increase its foothold in the region.

Meanwhile, China last year signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands, a first-of-its-kind arrangement that could pave the way for further Chinese security deals overseas.

On the other hand, the other countries in the region rejected Beijing’s security deal citing that it will infringe on the Pacific Islands’ sovereignty.

Also, India viewed the recent elections held in Fiji, Samoa and the Cook Islands with a lot of interest as the influence of China was felt specifically.

On the other hand, as India wishes to extend its influence in the Pacific Islands and South Pacific, it will develop its relations both in the Polynesian and Melanesian countries.

To start with, earlier the Cook Islands were accredited to Indian High Commission based in Fiji. It’s understood that Fiji is the hub of the Melanesian country.

With the above background, India wishes to open diplomatic missions in several countries of the South Pacific, including Samoa and Tonga (which are currently served from Wellington and Suva respectively). The increased presence and India’s desire to enhance its influence in the Pacific Islands Forum could be motivational.

India as it wants to become a permanent member of the forum understands that it provides an important annual opportunity for Pacific Islands leaders to discuss the political, economic and developmental issues facing the region in a time of rapid change, globalisation and increasing instability.

On the other hand, China will also view more status to claim in the Pacific Islands Forum. Though it’s true that Australia and New Zealand understand the increased Chinese presence in the Pacific Islands, it’s understood that they will also join hands with the United States, India and France to make sure that Beijing doesn’t have increased influence in the region.

As India is expanding its maritime reach to the Pacific Islands, the region falls organically into China’s maritime strategic thinking as a part of its oft-stated “island chain” strategy. Beijing largely benefited from good terms with Washington during the Cold War, paving the way for its politico-military expansion in the Pacific Islands (which began quietly in the early 1980s).

Also, India at present has permanent diplomatic postings only in Fiji and Papua New Guinea, none with military attaches. India is expected to seek membership in the Melanesian Spearhead Group as a tactical move to counter China’s expansion in the South Pacific region, especially in the Melanesian countries where its influence is increasing.

India’s Eastern Fleet has its operations through the Straits of Malacca but not to the Pacific Islands which could be facilitated by other maritime powers in the region which include the United States, Australia and New Zealand. It has somewhat got stuck in the southwest Pacific and precisely in the Strait of Malacca.

China’s maritime strategy is based on the three island chain strategies. India’s expanding naval presence is in keeping with the view that there is a need for it to have sea lanes of communication for its population. It’s because of the fact that India feels threatened by China’s expanding presence in this Indo-Pacific region and for the fact that the other powers in the region, the United States, has military commitments in other parts of the world, and the fact that Australia and some of the countries like Indonesia will not be in a position to challenge

Earlier, China proposed a five-year action plan sent to 10 Pacific islands ahead of a meeting of foreign ministers on May 30 last year which was rejected by the Pacific Islands as the proposed plan “threatens regional stability”.

India’s politico-military planners understand the increased role that Beijing will play in the affairs of the Pacific Islands.

Therefore, India’s strategic expansion of the Pacific Islands will be facilitated as India’s Andaman and Nicobar Tri command services become increasingly operational and it eventually turns out to have a third fleet based in Port Blair which has an increased role in the wider Indo-Pacific region.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Papua New Guinea was a game changer in India-Pacific Island relations.

Balaji Chandramohan
Author is a member of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses. He has worked as a journalist in India and New Zealand.

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