Marriage of Oceans: Can India play a proactive role in the Asia-Pacific
by Ashok B Sharma on 04 Dec 2014 0 Comment

The Asia-Pacific region has emerged as a global epicentre for trade and economy, politics and diplomacy, and has thus raised concerns for security. Recognising its importance, the superpower, the United States, has termed the region a “pivot” and expressed its intention to “rebalance” in this theatre. The emerging power, China, too, has made substantial forays. Now it is the turn for India as another emerging economy to play its role in the region.


One of the substantial takeaways from the recent 10-day visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to this region was not only the change in the country’s ‘Look East Policy’ to ‘Act East Policy’, but also in strengthening of the bonds at the last frontiers of the east, the Pacific Islands, which was long overdue. Another was inking of an elaborate framework for security cooperation with Australia, a key player in the region. Modi’s bilateral meetings with leaders of the region at the margins of India-ASEAN Summit and East Asia Summit would result in deeper engagements.


However, for India to play a more proactive role in the region, it needs to be a member of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). India already has Summit level talks with ASEAN and is represented in the East Asia Summit (EAS) and Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) which is held at Summit level. It also participates in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meetings (ADMM). The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is being worked out with the 10-member ASEAN bloc and seven other countries including India.


In his recent visit to Fiji, Modi formalised the first meeting with leaders of 14 Pacific Island countries including Cooks Island, Tonga, Tuvalu, Nauru, Kiribati, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Samoa, Niue, Palau, Micronesia, Marshall Islands, and Papua New Guinea, which form the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) along with Australia. The next such India-PIF Summit level meeting is slated to be held in a coastal city in India. With all such engagements, India rightly qualifies for the membership of APEC.


Modi has rightly lauded Fiji’s return to democracy under the new Constitution that gives equal rights to all citizens, including Indian citizens in that country. The wisest decision was to rope in the Pacific Island countries through Pan-Pacific IT network for tele-medicines and tele-education on the lines of Pan-Africa IT network successfully implemented by India. He further announced visa-on-arrival for citizens of all 14 PIF countries, setting up of $ one million Adaptation Fund to combat climate change and assured regional hubs for solar energy.


India would provide $125,000 Grant-in-aid annually to each PIF country for locally selected community projects. With a view to increase trade between PIF countries and India, Modi assured help in setting up of trade offices in PIF missions in India. Sharing of IT experiences, training of diplomats, capacity building, cooperation in space technology, was also assured.


As Fiji has been selected as India’s launching pad, Modi announced $5 million grant for modernising Fiji’s village, small and medium industries, $70 million for co-generation power plant at Rarav Sugar Mill, $5 million line of credit for upgrading sugar industry, setting up of a centre of excellence in IT and build Digital Fiji, setting up of a regional hub for space technology, assisting to set up e-library in Fiji Parliament and doubling scholarship and training slots for Fiji students. 


But still much more needs to be done to ensure a perfect marriage between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. New Delhi should take the initiative in this direction. About two-thirds of the global trade passes through this region. Maritime piracy is gaining grounds and this calls for perfect vigilance and adequate maritime security.


The Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), in which India is a member along with 19 other countries, is still in its infancy. IORA meetings take place at the level of foreign ministers. At present Australia, Bangladesh, Comoros, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kenya, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mozambique, Oman, Seychelles, Singapore, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Thailand, UAE and Yemen are members. China, Egypt, France, Japan, UK and the US are its Dialogue Partners.


There is an urgent need for including all countries in the Indian Ocean Rim as members of IORA. Egypt which is situated on the banks of the Suez Canal should be taken in as a member and not as a mere Dialogue Partner. Absolute priority should be given to upgrade IORA to Summit level talks. Like ASEAN, the IORA group should be based perfectly on geographical necessity and thus maintain its own centrality. All other countries can be co-opted as Dialogue Partners or Observers with limited roles, particularly in an advisory capacity. Australia, which is currently the chair of IORA, has much to do to initiate the process of integration in the Indian Ocean Rim and subsequently raising it to the level of Summit level talks. Initiatives should be taken to intensify Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS).


Regional blocs in the Asia-Pacific have become an urgent necessity in the era of globalisation. Strengthening of integration in South Asia is important. The eight-member South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) should be strengthened and neighbouring Myanmar should be a member. Currently SAARC comprises of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.


As all these countries are geographically South Asia and share common cultural heritage and civilisational linkages, there is a need to maintain the centrality of SAARC on the lines of ASEAN. China, Australia, European Union, Japan, South Korea, Mauritius and US which are not geographically South Asian countries can continue to remain as Observers with a limited role. Case of Iran’s membership in SAARC may be considered as it is strictly not a West Asian country. Connectivity in the SAARC region should be fully ensured and SAFTA made a vibrant reality.


Centrality of SAARC and IORA, ASEAN and PIF on the other side can eventually ensure a perfect marriage of the two great oceans – Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. The inter-connectivity of SAARC, IORA, ASEAN and PIF would make the Asia-Pacific region a vibrant reality. The Modi government has done sufficient spadework in boosting relationships with Australia, Japan, China, PIF, ASEAN, including Myanmar. It needs to boost its engagements with two other major economies in the region like South Korea and New Zealand. India’s initiative can make the integration of the two great oceans much stronger. 

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