The Pulse

India Looks Far East

A growing presence in the Pacific Islands could have significant benefits for India.

India Looks Far East
Credit: Pacific Islands via Shutterstock

“Five trillion dollars of commerce rides on the sea lanes of the Asia-Pacific each year, and you people sit right in the middle of it.” That was the Commander of the United States Pacific Command, Samuel Locklear speaking of the 8 million people who call 14 islands in the South Pacific home.

As the Pacific Islands, spectators to so many events that have come to define geopolitics since World War II – move out of the periphery of international relations, many powers have been seeking a more comprehensive presence in the region. And as China, through its maritime silk road strategy, and the U.S., through its pivot to Asia, attempt to garner goodwill and influence in the Pacific Islands, India, with its steadily broadening economic and geostrategic interests, seems curiously eager not to be left behind.

Fortunately for New Delhi, a growing development assistance program has allowed it to put more meat into what Minister of State for External Affairs E. Ahmed termed an “extended ‘Look East Policy’” – which has largely guided New Delhi’s engagement with its eastern neighbors since the early 1990s.

Between joining the Pacific Islands Forum as an observer in 2002 and last year, India committed over $11 million as grants to the Pacific Islands. In 2009, Delhi announced it would increase the annual grants it extends to each of the 14 pacific island nations from $100,000 to $125,000. India also gave a $50.4 million credit line to Fiji to help the island nation revamp some of its sugar mills.

Of course with one $50 million credit line, $11+ million as cumulative grants since 2006 and a commitment of $125,000 per island per year, India’s modest efforts are dwarfed by those of China, America, or even Australia. Still, considering that those three countries have more pressing incentives to engage with the Pacific Islands and also considerably deeper pockets, for the moment, financially outcompeting any of them for influence in the South Pacific is perhaps not New Delhi’s primary objective as it engages its far East.

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With its limited resources, New Delhi’s development assistance efforts in the Pacific Islands seem to have been of some benefit. For example, in 2007-08, New Delhi gave a grant to the Marshall Islands to install solar streetlights in the capital, Majuro, a city of 30,000, which then depended on imported fossil fuels for about 99.96 percent of the power it consumed. India’s $90,000 grant helped Majuro take a small but welcome step towards adopting renewable energy.

New Delhi also sponsored the training of a group of Pacific Islanders at an innovative program at the Barefoot College in the Indian state of Rajasthan. Aimed at teaching rural residents to install residential solar power units and solar powered desalination plants, the “barefoot grandmothers” program targets elderly women, since they are more likely to return to their communities and put their training to use there, instead of using their newfound skills to seek better paying jobs elsewhere.

In addition to these modest efforts to foster the spread of off-grid renewable energy in the Pacific Islands, India has also established information technology centers in Fiji and PNG. And, as of 2012, India offered Pacific Island countries 128 annual scholarships under the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation program, giving students from the region an opportunity to enroll in short-term training courses at universities in India.

Of course all this begs the more important question of why India has been looking so far East. India’s engagement with the Pacific Islands as a development partner certainly takes it far away from the familiar grounds of South Asia and Africa – which together account for more than 80 percent of the grants and 90 percent of the lines of credit India has extended since 2004. But there are reasons why deeper engagement with the region could prove immensely rewarding. For one, it would allow India greater access to markets further away from its shores (though most of the markets in question are small, trade with all of them except Fiji shows significant scope for growth). Perhaps more importantly, given the potential for liquefied natural gas extraction through deep sea mining, particularly off the coast of Papua New Guinea (PNG), with India’s fast maturing deep sea mining capabilities, engaging with the PIC’s could be one more way India diversifies its energy imports.

With new opportunities for trade and with resource based interests stretching further into the Pacific ocean, New Delhi could also make a stronger case for playing a greater role in ensuring freedom of navigation through the maritime highways of global commerce in South and East Asia – a role India’s rapidly modernizing navy might not find entirely unwelcome.

Further, as the notion of the “Indo-Pacific” – which sees the region stretching from Madagascar to the Marshall Islands as one unit – finds traction, deeper development partnerships with the Pacific Islands could help India maintain a more comprehensive presence in this “two ocean” region, helping ensure the reference to India in the emerging Indo-Pacific discourse is more than just nominal.

Of course, there is no certainty that a greater Indian presence will add to stability in the South Pacific. Another set of interests backed by respectable amounts of hard power could help ensure a more equitable distribution of power in the region, with potentially welcome implications for stability. However, if India finds aligning more closely with other dominant powers in the Pacific more rewarding, any resulting miscalculations could prove much costlier.

However, at least concerning trade and the search for new sources of energy, for India, deepening development partnerships with the Pacific Island nations holds plenty of promise. And most encouragingly, given the population sizes of the islands – PNG at 7 million, Fjii at 850,000, and the remaining 12 islands at 150,000 people – deepening development partnerships here will not cost New Delhi very much. Even small increases in development assistance to the region could yield enormous dividends.

Kailash K. Prasad is a Research Associate at the Indian Development Cooperation Research (IDCR) project at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. He tweets at @ridersonthestrm