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31 October 2013, Gateway House

India’s Strategic Imperative in the South Pacific

This report analyses the significance of expanding India’s engagement with the South Pacific in the backdrop of mounting global interest in the region

Senior Researcher

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As the global centre of gravity shifts to the Indo-Pacific, triggered in part by Chinese expansion and the U.S.’s Pacific “rebalancing,” an expanding Indian engagement with the South Pacific becomes a geoeconomic and geostrategic imperative.

The South Pacific sits at the “pivot” of the Pacific rebalancing. It is a largely stable region with a relatively small population; it has abundant resources (the Exclusive Economic Zone of the country of Kiribati alone is 3.5 million square kilometres, greater than the total land and maritime EEZ area of India); it is at the crossroads of vibrant and growing maritime trade routes; and it is increasingly strategically located.

Under the “one country, one vote” rule of most international fora, the 14 Pacific Island Countries (PICs) play a significant role in deciding international institutional legitimacy, which is increasingly important for India as it seeks a greater role in global affairs.

There is enormous scope for closer economic, political, and strategic ties between India and the South Pacific. Ties between the two are already friendly and age-old, with myriad cultural compatibilities. But if India continues to neglect the region, it will become increasingly difficult for India to maintain, or to regain, a toehold, while other powers like China manoeuvre for, and establish, entrenched positions.

Just one example of India’s low-key engagement in the region: it has only two High Commissions in the 14 PICs. One is in Fiji, because of its sizable Indian diaspora, the other is in Papua New Guinea, because of trade and minerals. India routinely goes unrepresented at regional meetings held in the other 12 PICs. In contrast, China has a major diplomatic mission in almost every PIC.

India and the PICs are natural partners which only need to 6 build the right bridges to come together to make the South Pacific and thereby the greater Indo-Pacific more economically, politically, and strategically secure. Others have already realised the region’s potential and are moving fast. The question is: Will India catch the South Pacific wave, or be washed over by it?

Related reading:

1. India-Tonga: Old friends, new engagements

Gateway House published this Op-Ed, by Tevita Motulalo, on 29 May, 2012. He analyses whether India, an old friend of Tonga, can fit into the increasingly important Pacific region by building on traditional ties with the island-nation

2. The geo-strategic Pacific Islands

Gateway House published this Op-Ed, by Tevita Motulalo, on 27 May, 2012. He analyses how the need for resources, and the geopolitical shift towards Asia-Pacific have prompted nations to realize that the small island states in the South Pacific control large resource-rich ocean areas and are increasingly geostrategic.

You can download the PDF version of this paper, here.

Tevita Motulalo is Senior Researcher, Maritime Studies, Gateway House.

This report was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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