India's Pivot to Oceania: Modi and the Pacific Island Nations


Another annual Pacific Islands Forum (the 47th, in fact) passes unnoticed by the international community, with landmark decisions relegated to the loneliest parts of the international news cycle, appearing on web searches listlessly and only when invoked by the unlikely follower of Pacific regionalism.

India is a dialogue partner of the Pacific Island Forum (PIF), and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has acted to enhance India’s involvement with the region, evidenced by historic visits to Fiji and Papua New Guinea, and the chairing of two India-Pacific Islands leaders’ summits in 2014 and 2015. The promising momentum of Pacific-India engagement, however, has appeared to stall in 2016—no further leadership summits have been arranged, and Modi’s proposal to host an international conference this year on “Ocean Economies and Pacific Island Countries” has yet to eventuate.

This apparent freeze on Indian-Pacific island relations is concerning as it comes at a tipping point in Pacific history, as the power play further intensifies. In a historic and surprising decision, the PIF has just promoted New Caledonia and French Polynesia to fully fledged members of the forum, which encourages yet another world power (the French Republic) to compete for its maritime interests.

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Modi’s recent interest in the Pacific is neither surprising nor misguided. Although many regard the Pacific islands to be on the fringes of the collective Asia-Pacific, the Modi government demonstrated that a pivot to Asia should also be a pivot to the Pacific. To those who may not know, the Pacific island states comprise a smattering of 14 island nations somewhere between Australia and the United States—a vast pond that usually appears at two ends of an Asia-centred world map.

However, as Modi rightly understands, the Pacific is anything but insignificant and India has much to gain by engaging bilaterally and also multilaterally with the Forum Island Countries (FICs). Between enormous and overlapping exclusive economic zones (EEZs), ownership over vast and untapped natural resources as well as the lion’s share of the world’s tuna supply, the FICs hold the keys to some of the world’s most highly demanded resources. More than being just a potential nexus for business, the Pacific is also of strategic and political importance; the FICs firmly straddle key sea lines of communication (SLOCs), age-old trade routes between Asia and the Americas, and also hold a crucial 14 votes at international multilateral fora.

As reflected by Modi’s Pacific policy, the FICs are emerging as a region of enormous potential due in part to their steady and bold exit from an era of ANZUS (Australia New Zealand and the United States) influence. No longer the “American Lake” of the post-war period, the Pacific nations are responding to a changing world order by opening dialogue with non-traditional partners. From the Indian perspective, and also that of many other world powers, the Pacific is now open for business, which naturally poses both opportunity and threat.

Much has been written on the rise of China in the Pacific, and with good reason. While Australia remains the highest aid-donor, Chinese investment in the region is climbing; China’s trademark among Pacific islands has been a savvy combination of readily available low-interest loans, gifts to those in power, as well as the generous clearance of unpaid debts. Chinese migration to the Pacific and business ownership by ethnic Chinese has also risen, with language and cultural institutes opening, most notably at the University of the South Pacific—the region’s premier tertiary institution.

Contrary to the opinions of some Pacific analysts, China’s entrance into the Pacific has arguably widened rather than narrowed access to the Pacific island nations. Taiwan retains a strong presence in defiance to Beijing, being recognized by six out of 14 FICs, and Japan maintains a modest, but consistent, investment presence with its Official Development Assistance (ODA) and capacity building projects.

The latest Pacific Islands Forum in September has also demonstrated the FICs are willing to invite yet another power into the negotiating room; New Caledonia and French Polynesia’s now fully sanctioned presence in the Forum represents two votes for the French Republic, who have held colonial possession over their three Pacific territories since the 19th century. The French have lobbied for full membership in the Forum for the past decade and have now gained a regional voice to further vouch for the interests of their three EEZs spanning almost the entire width of the Pacific Ocean.

In comparison to the aforementioned invested powers, India’s claim to the region appears weak and distant. Other than a somewhat estranged diaspora population in Fiji and some recent bilateral links with Fiji and PNG, India’s involvement has neither been colonial nor dominant or consistent. It can be argued, however, that India’s lack of previous engagement in fact perfectly facilitates its entrance; to the Pacific, India represents an emerging global power that is not associated with colonial oppression (see France), opaque and worrisome investment (see China), nor bad blood in Forum politics (see Australia and New Zealand). To the FICs, an India-Pacific partnership is a fresh opportunity to be pursued, and yet another actor that can be utilized in the classic small-state strategy of playing large powers against each other. And to India, the Pacific is the next frontier in fulfillment of its “Act East” policy—a firm step east from Southeast Asia and onto the newest contest for paramountcy.

In order for India to retain its footing in the Pacific region, forged commendably by Modi since assuming power in 2014, Indian-Pacific island relations need to be reaffirmed and strengthened. As demonstrated by the last Pacific Island Forum in Pohnpei, the Pacific is a rapidly shifting landscape, and competition for primacy is fierce. While acknowledging that India has arrived late to the proverbial “Pacific party,” it is paramount that Modi continues to bilaterally engage with more Pacific island countries and extend relations beyond just ties with PNG and Fiji. Modi would also do well to understand that engagement with “Oceania” (read Australia and New Zealand) does not necessarily correspond to good relations with FICs. Australia and New Zealand have lost considerable political capital within the Forum since the suspension of Fiji in 2009, and so India cannot necessarily rely on this particular gateway into Pacific relations.

Perhaps India should take heed of China’s lead and open more diplomatic missions in FICs (India has two, China seven). Given that India in the Pacific will be one power among many, Modi needs also to play to his country’s strengths and find an unfulfilled niche. It is perhaps too early in the partnership to map India’s role in the Pacific, but based on other developmental partners engaged by India, IT services and education could serve key exports to the Pacific islands. Many avenues to further relations with the Pacific countries could be pursued, given the time and energy on India’s part, but perhaps an excellent start would be to hold the proposed 2016 “Ocean Economies and Pacific Island Countries” conference in New Delhi, or to commence planning for the next Indian-Pacific Island leaders’ summit. If Pacific Island Forum politics is anything to go by, now is not the time for India to back down from Pacific relations.

Patrick Walsh is a researcher at the Observer Research Foundation.

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