India will inaugurate the second Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) in Jaipur on August 21. It will be a historic summit to put together the concerns and mutual interests of India and the 14 island countries of the Pacific, and chart a way forward in the Indo-Pacific century.
It is important that India and the Pacific nations keep their people aware of each other’s struggles and share their experiences as citizens of a single global community. But the forum this week will go beyond that.
The initiative is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s way of reaching out, of acknowledging the changing geopolitical landscape and the emerging strategic importance of the Pacific region to the global economy and security.
But merely stating that the geopolitical landscape is “changing” is not enough. The landscape is always dynamic to varying degrees, but the global political topography is now shifting faster than it ever has, on a magnitude that parallels no other previous period.
What used to be the strategic “backwaters” of middling local powers in the old order in both South Asia and the South Pacific, may now be right at the heart of the power-plays in the emerging geopolitical setting.
The South Pacific comprises the greatest concentration of the planet’s microstates, with populations averaging 100,000, spread across one of the biggest regions on the planet. But Kiribati, for example, with a population of 103,350 (in 2013) on 33 atolls peppered along the equator, means nothing to South Asia’s billions.
Location, however, matters. Once it is understood that Kiribati, along with its neighbours, has the most effective missile-launch stations on the planet and radio-monitoring outposts, and that it presides at the heart of trade and communication between Asia and the Americas, then the nation’s importance jumps in scale. Besides, along with its EEZ, the population of Kiribati commands an area greater than the whole of India.
In 2012, the previous commander of the US Pacific Command, Admiral Samuel Locklear, along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, declared from the Cook Islands that the Pacific Islands presided over $5 trillion of commerce each year, “and you people are sitting right in the middle of it.”
Last year, Admiral Locklear was in Tonga to reinforce Tonga-U.S. relations by formalising the National Guards’ State Partnership Program between the Tongan military and the Nevada National Guard.This author asked Admiral Locklear what had triggered this deepening the relationship. He replied: “I wouldn’t have recommended the expense and the resources that we’re going to put forward in this partnership, if it wasn’t important to us as a nation, and to our security architecture in general.”
Such is the criticality of the South Pacific. Therefore, what it could mean to Indian interests, and what India could mean to them needs to be further explored. And the upcoming summit is an opportunity for the Pacific Islands and India to reaffirm frank, equal, and respectable partnerships for development and strategic cooperation.
It is a chance for both sides to talk seriously. For far too long, the two sides have held each other’s concerns with varying degrees of benign disregard.
Prime Minister Modi has made exactly the right overture in initiating this (hereafter) annual forum. Now it’s up to the Pacific Islands to turn it into an opportunity for growth and greater security. And the possible threads for socio-economic cooperation are many.
On his visit to Fiji nine months ago, Modi announced a range of technical and technological projects that could help transform the economies of the region into active members of the global IT community.
Such technical and technological transfers, which were the expensive monopoly of the Pacific’s “traditional partners,” have been a burden and obstacle to development. Especially in the fields IT and communications, medicine, and education.
It is opportune then to state that India could look into giving inputs on space technology; the islands are self-sufficient circumscribed units and space technology would definitely help the economies of the region. Such an exchange would also meet the islands’ expectations.
India can also further explore security interests in the South Pacific, which is at the maritime flank of the South China Sea—the location of deep Indian interests that it must secure and stabilise. In terms of geostrategy, the South Pacific provides an open theatre and adds another layer of access and engagement, freed of the bottlenecks of the ‘Steel Corridor’.
In addition to the geopolitical, economic, and geostrategic interests, India and the Pacific islands can also meet in the arena of global institutions. India, as an emerging superpower, has a lot at stake, especially with regard to a permanent seat at the UN Security Council. The islands, on the other hand, are at the heart of the climate change debate and bear the brunt of its effects, which for them is a serious security concern.
The two sides can also enhance military-to-military exchanges. These are the institutions that provide deep, local, and effective coordination especially in non-traditional security matters like disaster relief. They are also an effective visible symbol for each community.
The FIPIC Summit is an opportunity not to just repeat the routine of “summitism” and dispensation of aid. It is a chance to take the relationship to new heights, and to turn the coming years into decades of unprecedented growth and security.
It is a fresh chance for the Pacific to act as a whole region and not just look for what each island can extract from India, and a chance for India to be a true Indo-Pacific partner.
Tevita Motulalo is the author of a Gateway House report titled ‘India’s Strategic Imperative in the South Pacific’ (November 2013). He specialises in geostrategy, especially as it relates to the Indo-Pacific. He is from the Kingdom of Tonga and was the editor of its oldest English language newspaper, the ‘Tonga Chronicle’, and deputy editor of the ‘Talaki’, one of the main Tongan-language newspapers. He contributes widely to the national and international news media.
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