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A comprehensive Pacific policy

If India’s rivals have succeeded in anything, it’s in convincing the great power of the sub-continent that it should be content and consumed with its own regional problems.

But contentment is confinement.

India is poised to be a global power, and not just a great power. That requires a comprehensive approach to regions of concern, and beyond that, requires comprehensive policies towards all regions, not just traditional areas of influence.

It is hard to define India’s South Pacific policy, apart from a pretension of pre-occupation with the Fijians of Indian origin. This narrow focus has limited India’s ability to broadly inspire all the peoples of the region. Not only does it appear almost ‘race-based’, it also limits  non Indo-Fijian people-to-people interactions. This has resulted in a narrow and inadequate knowledge between the people of India and those of the South Pacific.

The Indian government has traditionally relied on its missions in Fiji, Australia, and New Zealand, and the Indian diaspora in Fiji, for visibility and knowledge in the region. This ‘Track One-and-a-Half’ diplomacy may have worked for india in other parts of the world, but not in the South Pacific where cultures, economies and priorities are complex and vastly different from one another and where direct people-to-people connectivity would have been beneficial.

For example, when the Indian government attempted to reach out to Fiji after the first anti-Indian coup in Fiji in the early 1970s to assist Indo-Fijians in that country, it was barred by Australia which then was the influential power in the region. Additionally, relations between Indo-Fijians and indigenous Fijians have famously been a source of intense friction in the domestic politics of that country. Assuming then, that Indo-Fijians, or even Fiji, will be a neutral vanguard of Indian interests in the region is not only limited, but seriously flawed.

Any continuation of this policy or using proxies, is exactly what is expected to change under new prime minister Narendra Modi’s watch.

For the past two decades, most of the discussion and allegiances of the small island countries in the South Pacific focused on the ‘One China Policy’ and tensions between Taiwan and China. What is now starting to emerge is a Chinese ‘One-Asian-giant’ policy, thanks to the intense push from China. India’s benign neglect of the region had a role to play in that outcome – though there is no animosity towards India.

Is it too late to resuscitate India-South Pacific relations?

Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Australia, and side-trip to Fiji, can prove helpful, and should be optimized to gain maximum effect. While in Fiji on November 19, Modi will meet with leaders from over a dozen Pacific Island Countries. They will be coming to Fiji at short notice – displaying their interest in India.

There are two issues that Modi will face. First, these are leaders of independent countries, some of which have larger populations and economies than Fiji. They may not next time, be willing to be summoned to Fiji at the convenience of India, and because they still see India engaging with the region through a proxy (Fiji ) seemingly chosen based on ethnic links.

Second, two days after Prime Minister Modi leaves, China will be hosting its own summit in Fiji for those same South Pacific leaders. The agreements that China signs can then be followed up in-country via its vast network of embassies throughout the region.

In particular, China’s commitment to source and modernize the Fijian military, especially its naval capabilities, will not only change the security architecture in the region, it will affect the political dimensions in that country. Depending on the traditional levers of the diaspora may not be the wisest strategy for India.

It will certainly benefit India to establish at least a few more points of entry into the South Pacific, for instance in the other larger economies of Melanesia outside of Fiji. A major ‘dealmaker’ for India can be the Kingdom of Tonga, which is in Polynesia. As the only country in the region never colonised, India and Tonga have a long, if informal, history of direct relations, including a 1981 visit by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, making Indira a popular girls’ name in Tonga.

India facilitated Tonga-Moscow relations in the 1970s, which resulted in the first Soviet mission in a South Pacific island nation. The importance of this was reflected in Canberra’s fateful, reactive push for the first Chinese missions to be set up  in the South Pacific, in Fiji and Samoa, to ‘balance’ the region in 1976.

Prime Minister Modi’s Fiji visit, and follow up, is a chance to broaden and deepen the relationship between India and the South Pacific. Expanding the number of entry points, and a comprehensive, inclusive policy that engages civil society and the private sectors of both countries directly, will be a step in the right direction.

The learnings from India’s organic and innovative service industries is exactly what the countries of the South Pacific need, to supplement and revive their heavily-exploited islands that are currently dependent on Beijing and the Developed World. Cooperation in energy, agriculture and maritime activities, which are at the heart of the Indo-Pacific arc, can be initiated.

The South Pacific is the transit point for $5 trillion worth of trade between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. It’s location is geostrategic, and has the greatest concentration of the world’s micro-nations: 14, all of which have a vote in the United Nations and can lean in India’s favour, if only relations were much more active.

If India can make it to Mars, it can certainly make it to the South Pacific.

Tevita Motulalo is Senior Researcher for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.

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