Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is currently in Tokyo to discuss with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, issues such as bilateral investment and cooperation on infrastructure, including Japanese assistance in modernising India’s rail system.
But it is the discussions about geo-strategy and the optimisation of foreign policy objectives, that will loom large on the agenda. India will continue to guarantee Japanese interests in the Indian Ocean, while consolidating its relationship with other partners in the Pacific. Japan will position itself as a strategic economic partner for India, especially in the context of an increasingly aggressive China. But in an important addendum, on May 28, Singh announced that Japan is a “natural and indispensible partner” for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific – clearly a counter to China’s growing influence in the region.
When Abe visited India in 2007, he spoke of the ‘Confluence of Two Seas’ – the Indo-Pacific – to a joint session of the Indian Parliament. Now, five years later, concerns have about the stability and security of the region have grown and it has become vital for Japan and India, the two pillars of the “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” in the Indo-Pacific, to cooperate in the increasingly pivotal region of the South Pacific.
The South Pacific, an 85-million square kilometres area or about a quarter of the world’s ocean, comprises 14 Pacific Island Countries (PICs), including Fiji, Tonga, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and other independent or semi-sovereign countries. This greatest concentration of microstates on the planet, with small populations, has enormous resource-rich exclusive economic zones (EEZ). Kiribati alone has an EEZ the size of India.
China, acknowledging the region’s importance, has been ramping up its presence there. From 2005 to 2011, China poured $600 million in aid and soft loans into the region.  Tonga alone owes China up to a third of its GDP. New Zealand and Australia, both in the Pacific, shifted from being critical of opaque Chinese aid to partnering with China; New Zealand and China have a Free Trade Agreement and Australia and China have announced a currency pact.
It is strategic to ‘neutralise’ the Pacific in the event that China decides to use its leverage in the region against either India or Japan. An India-Japanese partnership will certainly maximise the relationships of both countries with the Pacific islands. Working together on the region’s development will increase their individual and joint stakes.
There are some models to work off. For instance, in August 2012, Japan and the U.S. agreed to collaborate in the PICs. Their areas of focus – disaster management, environmental issues, human security, people-to-people exchanges, and information sharing – indicate the sort of work Japan and India could collaborate on, helping to create real security and prosperity in the region.
Japan has been involved in the area’s development. Most recently in 2012, Japan pledged $500 million in aid to the PICS.  Most of this is relatively low profile, though vital to the Pacific economies. For example, after New Zealand installed a solar plant in the Kingdom of Tonga, with no storage capacity or micro-grid control system, Japan stepped in with the multi-million dollar cost of installing both. Japan got hardly any public acknowledgement for this aid.
Much of the aid given by Japan can be optimised at a low cost through Indian involvement. For example, Japan recently built a $ 30 million hospital in the Kingdom of Tonga.  Had Japan worked with India on the project, the hospital could have got low-cost Indian medical equipment, pharmaceuticals and even long-term telemedicine links to medical professionals in India. The cost difference would have been minimal or perhaps even a saving, with the impact multiplied. Both Japan and India would have gained in terms of local prestige and profile. Or, for example, Japan’s involvement in Tongan agriculture and fisheries can be enhanced by trilateral cooperation with India.
Part of the challenge for Japan’s engagement has been language – a problem India does not have with the PICs. Most PICs are English-speaking, and, like India, also emerging economies built on similar cultural values. Indian films, food and music are popular throughout the PICs – which gives India a soft power advantage that has not yet been properly appreciated.
India and Japan have various such complementary features that can be tapped. Japan excels in precision hardware, India excels in robust software. Japan’s ageing work force is highly qualified, a significant portion of India’s is English-speaking and young across a spectrum of skills.
India will benefit hugely by working with Japan in the PICs. Apart from Fiji, India has a small footprint in this vast region of enormous resources and cumulatively lucrative and under-accessed markets, and 14 votes in international fora. India has only two High Commissions in the 14 PICs: Fiji, because of its sizable Indian diaspora, and Papua New Guinea, because of minerals.
In Tonga, Japan has an Embassy, but India doesn’t – India’s Tonga representative is based in Fiji, leaving India unrepresented at most regional events in Tonga. Working with Japan would give India a way of engaging with the region that would be more in-depth and wider-ranging.
Tonga is politically pivotal to the South Pacific, and to any future Indian and Japanese interests in the region. Tonga is a parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarchy, with a stable government for more than a century. Never colonised yet part of the Anglo-sphere, Tonga has traditionally had a good relationship with India. This relationship could be leveraged, for example, if Tonga were to lobby on India’s behalf for a seat at the United Nations Security Council, and convince other Pacific countries to do the same. And, as a kingdom, Tonga has similar characteristics as the Japanese imperial system.
Like the other Pacific economies, Tonga does not want aid but assistance, safe investments and trade. The PICs are all small economies that only need a fraction of the trade that Japan and India can generate. They are a potential destination for high-end niche products from both India and Japan. If India and Japan start working together to help develop, and then increasingly integrate, with the economies of the PICs, they will not only create regional security and prosperity for themselves and the PICs, but also a model that can be exported to other countries.
Tevita Motulalo is a Researcher at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. He has a Master’s degree in Geopolitics from Manipal University. Previously, he was the Editor of the Tonga Chronicle, the oldest English language newspaper in the Kingdom of Tonga. He has also been the Deputy Editor of Talaki, one of Tonga’s leading Tongan-language newspapers.
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- Hanson and Fifita. China in the Pacific: The New Banker in Town. Lowy Institute 2011. Retrieved from http://www.lowyinstitute.org/publications/china-pacific-new-banker-town
- Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan. (2012). Sixth pacific islands leaders meeting (overview of outcomes). Retrieved from http://www.mofa.go.jp/region/asia-paci/palm/palm6/lm_overview.html
- Tonga Government Portal Ministry of Information and Communications. (2012).Grand opening of Vaiola hospital’s new health facilities by His Majesty King Tupou VI. Retrieved from http://www.mic.gov.to/health-a-ncds/community-health-a-development/3730-grand-opening-of-vaiola-hospitals-new-health-facilities-by-his-majesty-king-tupou-vi