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Act East, engage Pacific Island Countries

While India is playing catch-up in the South China Sea, China is locking up influence in the vast area between Asia and South America.

Cleo Paskal  Manipal | 15th Aug 2015

Their Imperial Highnesses the Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako of Japan in the Kingdom of Tonga, South Pacific, in July, greet the newly crowned King and Queen of Tonga. India didn’t send any representatives.

rime Minister Narendra Modi will meet with representatives from the 14 Pacific Island Countries (PICs) in Jaipur on 21 August. Part of India's reinvigorated foreign policy, this will be an important opportunity to show that India is serious about building a comprehensive, long-term "Act East" policy.

The engagement with the PICs started off extremely well. For the first time since Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister Modi made a point of visiting Fiji in 2014, and meeting with leaders from the region.

The visit was an acknowledgement of the already large and growing importance of the region. Covering almost 1/6th of the planet's surface, the countries of the Pacific aren't small island states as much as large ocean territories, with vast exclusive economic zones, increasing strategic importance, major untapped resources and 14 critical votes in international fora.

The PICs' value as partners is an open secret. For decades, both Australia and New Zealand have justified their position on the world stage by claiming they can "deliver" the PICs. However many of the PICs are becoming disenchanted with those "traditional partnerships".

For example, most recently, the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea made a statement clearly targeted at Australia. He said that after 1 January 2016, he would no longer allow foreign advisors in the government, in part because he was concerned they were spying, and not acting in the best interest of PNG. Similar feelings can be found across the PICs, and came into the open after Edward Snowden revealed that New Zealand intelligence was operating a "full take" policy on every Pacific nation it could, intercepting all calls, texts, emails, etc.

In a parallel to developments in Africa and elsewhere, this discontent has been identified as an opportunity by China.

China has been heavily involved in the region for well over a decade. There are the usual loans and infrastructure, but also the military-to-military engagement, leasing satellite slots, setting up a spy station, and discussing building ports. While India is playing catch-up in the South China Sea, China is trying to surround and consolidate by locking up influence in the vast area between Asia and South America.

And it isn't just China. Abu Dhabi used the help of the PICs to get the headquarters for IRENA. Dubai worked with them to win as hosts of the 2020 Expo.

In spite of almost all the PICs being stable, democratic, well educated (many with close to 100% literacy), and English speaking — all things that should have been a natural bond between India and the region — India has been very slow off the mark.

India has a range of institutional impediments slowing it down. For a start, India has only two high commissions in the 14 PICs. One is in Fiji, because of the Indian diaspora, the other in Papua New Guinea, because of resources and trade.

India representation in the rest of the 12 PICs is fragmented. The Indian mission in Fiji is accredited to Tonga, Tuvalu, Nauru, and Cook Islands. The mission in Papua New Guinea is accredited to Vanuatu and Solomon Islands. The Indian mission in New Zealand is accredited to Kiribati, Samoa, and Niue. The mission in the Philippines is accredited to Palau, Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia. The mission in France covers French Polynesia and other French possessions in the region. The mission in Washington covers American Samoa and other US possessions in the region.

This means a cohesive policy (or even an understanding of the region) would mean coordinating half-a-dozen missions, four of which have much larger primary responsibilities. As a result, there are very few PIC experts in the MEA.

It is not uncommon to hear members of the diplomatic service say they would like to visit the PICs because of the tropical islands, warm waters and beaches. It sounds like a tourist from Detroit saying they've been on a houseboat in the backwaters near Kochi and so know all about Kerala politics. The listening posts, strategic ports, banks, mining operations, military bases, etc., seem to be invisible. These are real countries, not postcards.

A report in the Business Standard last week quoted one government official as saying that India provides annual grants-in-aid of $200,000 to every PIC: "The amount is enough for them, as they are not big countries."

Throwing pennies to what you imply are beggars is not the best way to build friendships. Nor is it accurate. PNG, for one, has a GDP of over $16 billion and a projected growth rate of 15% for the year. Additionally, India's $200,000 is nothing compared to, for example, the $11.7 million China just gave Tonga for a new government building.

Also, size is no indication of importance. One of the most important events in the region took place in the Kingdom of Tonga (population 100,000) in July: the coronation of a new king and queen. Tonga, never colonised, is the last surviving PIC kingdom, and the royal family of Tonga has deep, ancient connections throughout the region, and to royal houses around the world.

Attending the event were heads of states and traditional leaders from across the PICs, as well as a range of nobility from Europe, including the Archduke of the House of Habsburgs, Baron Glenarthur from the UK and the Crown Prince and Princess of Japan. As an indication of the strong relationship between "tiny" Tonga and Japan, it was only the second time in decade that the Crown Princess has left Japan on an official visit.

Rather than sending someone from Delhi, India was represented by someone from the regional diplomatic corps, meaning it was not invited to the closed events attended by the VVIP visitors. If it had, it would have been an opportunity to show not just the region, but London, Tokyo and others that India is serious about its role in the Pacific.

Clearly, someone in the MEA thought size matters, and missed the opportunity of a generation. Perhaps coincidentally, Tonga won't be sending its head of state or government to Jaipur.

Another fallacy echoed by the government source is that the PICs want handouts. Actually, they really don't want aid, they want trade, and real partnership. Their goods are often blocked from the markets of Australia and New Zealand on spurious grounds, while the same countries dump overpriced goods across the region.

So for many shoppers in the region, the choice is expensive western goods, or suspect cheap Chinese products. A paracetamol in Tonga costs eight times what it does in India. The average car in Tonga is a 10-year-old Japanese, which sells for twice the amount as a new Tata Nano.

Pacific islanders are buying paracetamols and cars, and sending their kids abroad for university, and healthcare. If India wants to make real friends, it should help in the sectors that can increase the region's connectivity, and so broaden its options in deciding its own future. In particular, transport, communications (including tele-education and healthcare) and energy.

Want to pull the region closer to India? Weekly direct flights to Fiji; Indian mobile companies entering the markets to compete with overpriced monopolies; Indian wind and solar tech.

It also means developing real Indian experts on the PICs. For decades, India has taken the lead on many Pacific issues, including Fiji, from Canberra and Wellington. Or worse, been led by an ethnocentric approach to the region.

One of the inspiring aspects of Prime Minister Modi's win was that it showed India valued skill, hard work, and heart over family background. Unfortunately, in the PICs, the impression is that India is only interested in ethnic Indo-Fijians. This poses a few challenges to a true partnership with the PICs.

The first is a logical inconsistency. The argument for Indo-Fijian rights is that they are as Fijian as everyone else. However, by singling them out, India is implying they still have strong ties to India. So is India saying they are just like all other Fijians, or is India saying they have a dual identity? Everyone understands the natural warmth towards distant "relations", especially the family-oriented PICs. It just may not be the best thing to base a foreign policy on.

Maybe India could fight for the rights of all Fijians, irrespective of background, not just the ones that look like someone from back home; otherwise it is undermining the position that Indo-Fijians are fundamentally Fijian.

Second, by so heavily focusing on the Indo-Fijians, India is picking up baggage it may not want to carry. For example, just this last week, a couple of dozen Fijians were arrested for sedition for allegedly attempting to create a breakaway Christian state.

It doesn't seem to be primarily a response to Hindu Indo-Fijians, but rather flamed by concerns over perceived growing Wahhabi influences coming in partially via the Muslim Indo-Fijian community. Real or not, the perception is there. And the nation of India risks being conflated with various conspiracy theories, unless it does what the Modi-era promised: build respect-based, lasting, non-corrupt, international partnerships for a stable, mutually beneficial future.

Cleo Paskal is Adjunct Faculty, Department of Geopolitics, Manipal University.

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