Government of India attaches great importance to its relations with Pacific Island Countries. India believes
economic linkages and co-operation with Pacific Island countries are a key factor in its extended ‘Act East ‘ Policy
. India has had a long history of cooperation and close engagement with country like Fiji, which has a large population of Indian origin. India has participated in Pacific Island Forum (PIF) meetings as one of the 18 dialogue partners (including US, EU and China).

Pacific Island Nations (PINs)

  • The Pacific Ocean is the earth’s largest ocean covering 46% of water surface and one third of the earth’s total surface. The region comprises 41 sovereign states plus Taiwan and 22 non-independent territories. The region has a share of 71% in total world’s ocean fishery catch.
  • The Pacific island states comprise a group of 14 island nations in Pacific Ocean – Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.
    • Each of these countries shares similar challenges and opportunities as small and remote island economies. They are small in size with limited natural resources, narrowly-based economies, large distances away from major markets, and vulnerable to external shocks; all of which can
      affect growth and have often led to a high degree of economic volatility.

Significance of Pacific Island Nations to India

  • The importance of the region emanates from its rich marine resources and geostrategic significance among others.
  • India’s outreach to Pacific island states is the next step in its “Act East” strategy. The relationship with the Pacific Island Nations has taken a new momentum with mechanisms like Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC), India-Pacific Islands Sustainable Development Conference and Prime Minister of India’s visit to Fiji, etc. Although the relationship has past connections, the present dynamics have been greatly influenced by geographic, economic and strategic factors.

Historical

  • India is certainly at an advantage in its bid to retain influence in the region being historically more connected. Like India, PINs were colonies of European imperialists.
  • Fiji Indians: In Fiji, 37 percent people are of Indian origin. Many Indians arrived in Fiji as indentured labour in the 19th century. Apart from Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu and Nauru have cordial relations with India, while Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Kiribati and others have warm feelings for India.
  • The Indian brand is known in these islands mainly because of the Fiji Indian traders and businessmen.

Geographic

  • Fiji is the largest country of the group, with a population of around 880,000.
  • Kiribati is one of the most remote and geographically dispersed countries in the world consisting of 33 coral atolls spread over 3.5 million square kilometers of ocean – an area larger than India.
  • Extended continental shelves, enormous and overlapping exclusive economic zones (EEZs), ownership over vast and untapped natural resources are important for India’s energy needs.
  • Exploration of deep sea minerals such as rare earth metals will boost electronics and other industries.

Strategic

  • PINs firmly straddle key sea lines of communication (SLOCs).
  • Age-old trade routes between Asia and the Americas.
  • Of the 14 Pacific Island nations, 12 have a vote in the United Nations, and India asserts it has “firm stated commitment of support” from at least 10 of these. Thus, they play important role in India’s UNSC membership.
  • India’s own connection with PINs is important for countering Chinese influence in the Pacific region.
  • PINs are key factor to India’s Act East Policy.

Economic

  • Biotic and Abiotic Resources: Enormous marine resources, deep sea minerals and petroleum make the region economically important.
  • Trade potential: Diversification of markets, exports promotion, and development of industries and success of make in India. India can maneuver to increase trade from current level of about $300 million annually, where exports are around $200 million and imports are around $100 million.
  • Agriculture: Palm oil, sugar and timber are main products. Mahogany is extensively grown in PINs which can help Indian paper industry’s requirement of timber.
  • Services: Tourism, healthcare, Information Technology and fisheries are the areas where India can enhance the capability of PINs to generate more revenue and employment.

Areas where India can Help

  • Development deficit: Dispersed and low population, lack of skilled human resource, low level of connectivity has led to non-realization of enormous potential.
  • Manufacturing activities being low has impacted the economic growth of the region.
  • The issue of connectivity has impacted trade and investment.
  • There exists an imminent danger of submergence of PINs due to Climate Change and global warming.
  • Traditionally being agriculture dominated, PINs are facing economic problems due to volatility in commodity markets worldwide mainly in sugar market.
  • Lack of education and health facilities increases inconvenience to the citizens of these countries.
  • As major economies such as the US and China lie on its boundary, the Pacific has for long been and will continue to be a major factor in the geostrategic calculations of major powers such as the US, Japan, China, and Russia. Entangled in this situation of strategic rivalry and competition are many smaller states and island territories, including the 14 PIF members.
  • Given the large number of states and territories in the Pacific, numerous maritime disputes have arisen, especially in the South China Sea (China, Taiwan and 6 ASEAN countries), and in the East China Sea (China Japan, China-South Korea). China’s aggressive posture in imposing unilateral claims despite being a party to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) raises severe apprehensions for PINs.

Opportunities for India

Agriculture and Allied Sectors

  • India can do value addition to their products copra, sugar, timber etc. to make these products economically more remunerative.
  • To cement the relationship, India can offer technology in sectors like fishing, marine resources, agriculture, coconut, coir, etc.

Manufacturing and Minerals Exploration

  • Countries like Papua New Guinea, Kiribati and Fiji have petroleum and mineral resources in their sea beds. India can form joint ventures and explore these minerals which will benefit both host country and India meeting their energy needs.
  • Power generation from biomass gasification, solar energy, wind energy and tidal energy are promising areas where India can help.
  • On trade, besides the FIPIC Trade Office in New Delhi, India can support the development of MSMEs. India can also help improve market access for Small Island Developing States.

Services Sector

  • India can help improve the service sector potential of the region by collaborating in IT, health, education and tourism.
  • India can focus on developing capacity for health services. Generic drugs from India are presently supplied through third countries at a higher cost. India can set up a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant and distribution center in the Pacific Island region and has offered a Line of Credit for this project.
  • Tertiary health care is a challenge and patients have to be flown long distances for these services. India can help them open state of the art hospitals.
  • The extension of “The Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation Training Programme” to all pacific island countries will improve human resource.

Climate Change and Disaster Management

  • PINs will be most affected by Climate Change and Global Warming leading to frequent cyclones, storm surges and other natural disasters.
  • India can help to create capacity in Island States to deal with natural disasters through human resource development and application of space technology for early warning system and incident response.
  • India can lead their cause in international forums to enable PINs get enough finances for disaster mitigation and climate adaptation
  • “The India-PINs Sustainable Development Conference-2017” under the framework of FIPIC will help facilitate the exchange of knowledge and experience, and initiate public-private partnerships and collaborations for the benefit of all participating countries.

Space Technology

  • The scattered nature of the PIF members across vast ocean spaces mean that telecom and TV services via satellite technology and internet could be a game changer.
  • India can assist in establishing a ‘Space Technology Applications Centre’ in any one of the Pacific Island Countries for the entire region and enhance support for training in space applications, including through customized courses.
  • Fiji has been instrumental in hosting Indian scientists for tracking India’s Mars Mission.

Culture and Diaspora

  • In the media field, Prasar Bharti can gift television and radio programmes on culture, entertainment, news, education, etc.
  • Supporting creation of India Centres through e-libraries and supply books to libraries at universities in the PIF countries
  • In addition, India has increased the annual “Grantin-Aid” from USD 125,000 to 200,000 to each of the 14 Pacific Countries for community projects of their choice, and launched a new Visitors Programme for Pacific Island Countries. These represent a significant upgrade in India’s relationship with the PINs.
  • Engaging more with Indian Diaspora in PINs and especially with Fiji will boost the relations.

Recent Initiatives

Visit by State Dignitaries

  • The visit by the Indian Prime Minister to Fiji as soon as he assumed office comes 33 years after Indira Gandhi’s visit.
  • The state visit by the Indian President to Papua New Guinea (PNG) and New Zealand in April 2016 flagged a new momentum that has emerged in India’s relations with the Pacific Island Countries (PICs) since the Hon’ble Prime Minister visit in May 2014 and subsequently instituted the Forum for India Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC).

Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC)

  • The Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) was formed in November 2014 to strengthen India’s relationship with Pacific Island Countries.
  • The first FIPIC summit was held at the level of Heads of Government in November 2014 in Suva, Fiji, followed by the FIPIC-II summit held in August 2015, in Jaipur, India.
  • The FIPIC initiative marks a serious effort to expand India’s engagement in the Pacific region under India’s extended Act east policy.

Challenges for India

  • Indian diplomatic representation is weak and many of the PIF members are covered by non-resident Indian missions which are not able to make frequent visits.
  • Countering China which has stronghold in the region will be a herculean task.
  • Financial constraints for meeting so many projects would require lot of monetary and human resources.
  • China has significantly expanded its foothold in the region from increasing business and trade ties to setting up diplomatic missions in each of these countries. More than 3 ,000 Chinese companies are already operating in these Island groups in various businesses.
  • These countries are highly influenced by Australia due to its close proximity – for example, Australia helping the development of natural gas of Papua New Guinea, etc.

Way Forward

  • The PIF countries face significant developmental challenges and threats from global warming induced rise in sea levels and extreme weather events. India needs to engage with these countries to mitigate climate change before they perish.
  • The setting up of a special USD one million fund for adapting to climate change and clean energy, Pan Pacific Islands e-network to improve digital connectivity, cooperation in space technology applications for improving the quality of life of the islands , and training to diplomats from Pacific Island countries will facilitate island nations to diversify themselves.
  • Implementation of projects offered by India should be improved by appropriate reforms in project management and financial approval processes.
  • Despite said challenges, India needs to build on her advantages – health tourism, building democratic institutions which PINs need a lot.
  • India’s strong relations with Fiji, which has considerable influence in the region, is a strong point which could help counter the growing Chinese influence
  • Perhaps India should take heed of China’s lead and open more diplomatic missions in FICs (India has two, China’s seven). Given that India in the Pacific will be one power among many, it needs to play to its own strengths and find an unfulfilled niche.

Conclusion

  • Efforts should be made in bringing the warm and friendly people of the Pacific islands closer to India. India, on its part, can share relevant expertise with these countries.
  • In a shrinking world, distance need not be a barrier to closer relations.
  • China appears to have plans to build another “string of pearls” in its favour in the South Pacific, mainly through trade and economic cooperation. India can effectively counter these moves if it makes use of its assets in the region by leveraging its cultural advantage to engage & establish more intimate relations.
  • Also, India needs to get another fleet in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to improve India’s military engagement with South pacific.

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