Gaining Prominence in Indian Foreign Policy Calculations

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Niranjan Chandrashekhar Oak

The state visit by President Pranab Mukherjee to Papua New Guinea (PNG) and New Zealand marked an important milestone in India’s extended ‘Act East’ policy. It signaled the new momentum that has emerged in India’s relations with the Pacific Island Countries (PICs) since Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed power in May 2014. In August 2015, leaders from 14 PICs – Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Niue, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu – visited India for the second summit of the Forum for India Pacific Cooperation (FIPIC), which was launched during Modi’s visit to Fiji in November 2014.

The importance of the latest visit by Mukherjee lay in the fact that it was the first Presidential visit from India to Papua New Guinea and New Zealand as well as the first high-level visit from India to Papua New Guinea.  The South Pacific, a sub region of the larger Indo-Pacific, has long been considered a backwater of global politics.1 The region is home to a large number of islands which can be grouped into Micronesia (Northern Pacific), Melanesia (Western Pacific) and Polynesia (Eastern and Central Pacific). Traditionally, these islands have had close economic and political links with the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, the United States (US) and, to a lesser extent, Japan.

The Freely Associated States of the US (Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau), together with Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, are regarded as a security border of the US in the Asia-Pacific.3 Apart from the US, the extensive presence of France in the Pacific Ocean facilitates space sensoring, monitoring and retrieval. After World War II, the region was dominated by the US, which exerted its influence through its allies Australia and New Zealand.

The latter’s primary responsibility was to help promote development and maintain political stability in the region, which was important for US security. But in the mid-nineties, the region did not receive the required attention by the US, which actually relied upon and supported Australian leadership. For its part, Australia used its influence “to push through an intrusive and regulatory regional governance agenda, designed to improve the ‘effectiveness’ of PICs.”

This led to regional dissatisfaction among the PICs.5 Meanwhile, China made inroads in the region by offering financial aid to PICs. Partly in response, the US announced its ‘pivot’ to the Asia-Pacific. Thus, the region’s strategic importance came to be realized only during the last decade when global attention shifted towards the Indo-Pacific.

Against this backdrop, this backgrounder explores three questions: How strategically significant is the region for India? What are the advantages that India enjoys over China in the region, considering that both are extra-regional actors. And what is the status of India’s relationship with Papua New Guinea in the light of Mukherjee’s visit?

Importance of the South Pacific for India

Until the 1980s, Indian foreign policy was largely continental in its outlook and gave little importance to the maritime aspect. This state of affairs changed after 1991 when the economy was liberalized. Under the stewardship of then PM Narasimha Rao, India began pursuing the ‘Look East’ policy, which brought strategically important regions to the East such as South East Asia, East Asia and Oceania, back on the radar of foreign policy strategists. Modi has added more purpose to the ‘Look East’ policy by renaming it as ‘Act East’ policy, thus indicating the greater sense of priority that India accords to the region. India’s relations with PICs are part of the extended ‘Act East’ policy. PICs are independent, sovereign nations, each having voting rights at international organizations, such as the Commonwealth and the United Nations, among others. In the era of multilateralism, receiving institutional legitimacy in the form of votes for a country’s stand on global issues such as climate change or trade negotiations has become absolutely necessary.

Together, PICs form one of the biggest chunks of votes in multilateral forums. India has been seeking support from these countries to attain its ambition of becoming a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). At the FIPIC summit held in Jaipur in 2015, Modi had said, “We seek your support for the text of the President of the General Assembly as a basis for reforming the Security Council. Your voice of support for India’s permanent membership of the Security Council will give the United Nations the global character and balance that mirrors our age.”7

Due to its geographic location, the South Pacific is an ideal location for establishing a monitoring and tracking station for satellites. India’s Mars mission was monitored from Fiji, and two ships (SCI Yamuna and SCI Nalanda) carrying Ship Borne Terminals were deployed at suitable locations in the South Pacific, among other tracking locations. The region proved its worth in telemetry, tracking and command for the Mars mission. Due to its successes in launching national and foreign satellites, India is harbouring an ambition to enter the global commercial satellite launch market in a big way. This is going to make the South Pacific Ocean vital for India in the coming years.

As the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, Henry Puna, asserted, PICs are “large ocean island states.”8 Some of them have Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) that are larger than the landmass with vast resource potential.9 The region is rich in minerals such as copper, nickel, gold and Liquefied Natural Gas and has a huge fishing potential. Furthermore, the unexplored seabed of the South Pacific holds great prospects as well.

Currently, India’s exports to the region are just 1.4 per cent of its total exports and imports from the region are 2.5 per cent of its total imports. Considering the fact that the Pacific economies are “very open economies, reflected in lower tariff rates”,10 there is immense scope for growth on the trade front. The region, along with Australia and New Zealand, can be a potential market for reliable and reasonable Indian products.

India has fulfilled the promises it had made on previous occasions – whether regarding cooperation during COP-21 or establishment of a trade office in New Delhi – which has added credibility to its commitment to this region. Moreover, this has opened new vistas of future cooperation in the fields of space, oceanographic research, HADR, etc. There is a likely possibility for India to help the PICs launch their own satellites or share satellite images developed by Indian satellites for early warning and to map natural resources of each of the Islands.25

India has proposed to hold an International Conference on “Ocean Economy and Pacific Island Countries” in 2016, where New Delhi is likely to host officials and independent experts of all 14 PICs. Modi is also likely to travel to the region for the third summit of the FIPIC. With the frequent high level visits of late, India has shown readiness to constructively engage the region and ‘turn its historic links with the South Pacific into a strategic partnership’.26

Niranjan Chandrashekhar Oak is a Research Intern, Southeast Asia and Oceania Centre, IDSA

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