India comes closer to the Pacific Islands
by Ashok B Sharma on 21 Aug 2015 2 Comments

Cooperation in space technology and boosting presence in the critical Asia-Pacific theatre for commerce and security are the compelling reasons behind New Delhi reaching out to the small island countries in the Pacific Ocean rim.


Fiji, a small Pacific island country, hosted Indian scientists to track India’s first inter-planetary Mars Orbiter Mission – Mangalyaan – that was launched in November 2013 and was successful in the first attempt. Two Indian ships – Yamana and Nalanda – were positioned in South Pacific Ocean. Apart from Indian ground stations at Sriharikota, Port Blair and deep space network at Baylalu near Bangalore, Mangalyaan was also monitored from Brunei and Biak in Indonesia, Hartebeesthoek ground station in South Africa, Mauritius, Alcantara and Cuiaba space stations in Brazil and NASA’s deep space network stations in Canberra, Madrid and Goldstone on US west coast. Recognising the importance of the Pacific Ocean in space technology, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the Fijian Parliament last November, “We could work to make Fiji the hub for our regional collaboration in Space, just as India has done with ASEAN.”


New Delhi has plans to launch a satellite exclusively for South Asian (SAARC) countries for forecasting weather and natural disasters and help agricultural production. It has also extended its cooperation to ASEAN and intends to do so for the Pacific Islands. Indian space scientists are slated to organize technological workshops with Pacific island countries in the coming months.


This is an appropriate time for India to seize the opportunity of extending its outreach to the Pacific islands as mega regional trade blocs that exclude New Delhi like Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Asia-Pacific FTA are in the offing. The TPP has proposed several stringent standards that may not be suitable to India. Moreover, the US has considered TPP as “companion agreement” to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – another mega trade arrangement under negotiation that include US and the European Union.


India is not a member of either Pacific Economic Cooperation Council (PECC) or the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) – a forum for discussing trade liberalisation, but without binding commitments so far. However, in the last APEC Summit, China mooted the proposal for converting this forum into a binding trade arrangement through Asia Pacific Free Trade Area (APFTA). Thus, all these attempts can be viewed as shrinking New Delhi’s presence in the region.


The Modi government’s renaming India’s Look East Policy to Act East Policy is an added assertion of its proactive engagement in the area. India-ASEAN Summit level talks, New Delhi’s presence in East Asia Summit process Asia-Europe Summit (ASEM) and its involvement several ASEAN+6 process like ADMM++, ARF are demonstration of India’s presence in the critical Asia-Pacific theatre that has greater presence of rival powers like US, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia.


India has FTA with ASEAN and bilateral relations with the South East Asian countries. New Delhi’s recent attempt to involve lesser developed ASEAN countries like Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam (CLMV) into the regional value chain is a step in the right direction. It is a party to the negotiations for Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) that respects the centrality of ASEAN in this ASEAN+6 process. The RCEP that is in an advanced stage of negotiations can prove more beneficial to India than TPP or APFTA.


Asia-Pacific theatre is a critical area in this multi-polar world in terms of trade and security and is witnessing competing power play by US, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia. In this context, Prime Minister Modi made the right diplomatic endeavor to extend India’s Act East Policy further eastwards to the last frontier to include small Pacific island nations


India is a dialogue partner with the Pacific Island Forum (PIF), a political grouping that includes Australia and New Zealand along with 14 independent Pacific Ocean island states. However, without disturbing its relationship with PIF, New Delhi launched the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) that includes 14 independent Pacific island states, but excludes Australia and New Zealand. These remote and isolated Pacific islands are eager for development and engagement with major economic powers. Fiji has already initiated a regional body, Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF) that constitutes of 10 regional players, excluding Australia and New Zealand. PIDF leaders are slated to meet for the third summit level talks in Suva in Fiji in the first week of September.


The first summit-level meeting of FIPIC was held during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Fiji last year. He was the first foreign leader to address the Fijian Parliament after recent elections in that country. Though Mr Modi assured that the second FIPIC Summit meeting will be held in one of the coastal states in India, the meeting was scheduled in Jaipur in Rajasthan. As Pacific islands are littoral states any place on the Indian coast should have been a suitable venue.


The FIPIC Summit is a format of 1+4, i.e., Head of State or Government plus four others. FIPIC includes 14 Pacific island states (Fiji, Cook Islands, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu). FIPIC has, however, excluded Timor L’este which a member of PIDF and New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Tokelau who are associate members of PIF and Wallis and Futuna, American Samoa, Guam and Northern Marianas who are observers to PIF.


India has a total trade of about $ 300 million with the Pacific islands, which is much below the potential, given the fact that these islands present scope for trading in marine resources, agro-produces, coconut, coir, oil and natural gas, mineral resources. Cooperation in energy trade, blue economy, renewable energy and climate change are vital in India’s interests. Eleven out of 12 Pacific island nations openly support India’s candidature for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. India has been extending development assistance to these countries and is planning to set up IT centres and network for tele-medicine and tele-education. Thus India’s presence in Asia-Pacific theatre can become stronger with cooperation with Pacific Islands. 

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