rime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Fiji makes sense for reasons that extend far beyond outreach to the diaspora. Fiji is an important nation in the constellation of the 14 states that are known as the Pacific Island Countries (PICs). These include the Cook Islands, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, the Kingdom of Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.
Each of these countries has a vote in international fora. As a voting bloc, they are proving increasingly important. Additionally, they are often considered "small countries" due to their relatively small populations and landmass. However, given that every small island can claim a minimum 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone, these are actually very large ocean territories. The Republic of Kiribati, for example, may only have 100,000 in population, but it has an exclusive economic zone the size of India. Not only does Kiribati's zone potentially contain myriad natural resources, it is also strategically located. So much so that China tried to establish a base there to monitor US activity in the region.
China has recognised the value of the PICs and has taken advantage of regional disenchantment with the traditional partners Australia and New Zealand to establish a strong economic, and in some cases demographic and strategic, beachhead. For example, Australia and New Zealand's international drive to isolate Fiji following the 2006 coup pushed Fiji closer to China, and today Beijing is one of Fiji's major allies. Just two days after Modi holds his meetings in Fiji, Chinese President Xi Jinping will be in Fiji holding his own mini-summit for PIC leaders.
In many cases, the turn towards China was not by choice, it was out of economic desperation. And India would be a welcome new multidimensional partner in the region. The countries of the region don't want aid, they want trade. And there are many sectors in which India can offer partnerships no one else can. These include:
Currently, communication costs in the PICs are some of the highest in the world, in many cases for no apparent technical reason. In most markets, there are very few providers and it can almost seem as if there is collusion in pricing. Established Indian telecoms are likely to be able to provide much lower cost services — something that would help unleash the PIC economies as a whole, as they could then take advantage of e-economies.
Renewable energy is going in across the region, but the installations tend to be high cost Western style projects that may not be the best use of resources. The sort of innovative, comprehensive solutions developed in Gujarat, for example, combining irrigation, solar and agricultural shifts would help the PICs get their infrastructure right from the start, instead of having to consistently try to patch up mismatched and/or inappropriate systems.
Sanitation in many of the PICs is based on a Western flush model, which may not always be the most appropriate for the soil, water and temperature condition. And in many cases, especially in the outer islands, these technologies are simply not viable because of lack of energy and infrastructure, and so no solutions are provided. For example, currently, the World Bank is building houses on the Tongan islands of Ha'apai with no kitchen or sanitation facilities at all. The innovative and low cost solutions offered by organisations like Sulabh are largely unknown and would be very welcome in the region.
Given that most PICs speak English, and are currently acquiring a high-level of tertiary education, can often mean taking out ruinous loans to go to Australia or New Zealand. E-educational linkages with Indian institutions would quickly create a new generation of PIC professionals.
A Maori waka bears striking similarty to a Kerala snake boat.
Currently, most pharmaceuticals in the PICs are either expensive Western products or cheap Chinese supplies. There have been proven quality problems with the Chinese drugs. Affordable, trusted Indian pharmaceuticals would be a very welcome entrant to the market. The same is true for medical equipment. Currently, people are dying across the Pacific because entire countries don't have access to things like dialysis machines. And, of course, e-medicine link-ups with Indian specialists would save the PICs money and, more importantly, lives.
Conversely, there are regional medical discoveries that Indian pharmaceutical companies might like to research for co-development. For example, the root of the kava plant is an effective and safe anti-anxiety medication. Pacific islanders have been using it for millennia. However, it is a threat to established and lucrative anti-depressants. Perhaps coincidentally, some Western countries have tried to have this low cost alternative banned based on toxicity tests that used the wrong part of the plant. Testing, and if warranted, product development, by Indian labs could resolve this issue once and for all. And kava is only one of many traditional medical innovations in the Pacific. The PICs are already spending money on telecoms, sanitation, energy, education, medicine and much more. In many cases, they are just either paying too much, or are getting subpar quality. There is a definite role for India, and Indian business, in the Pacific. This is not charity; this is trade that is good for both sides.
Indian companies are not looking at these markets because they think they are too small, but, as an aggregate, they are sizeable. India can take the lessons learned from having successfully developed the similar "village economics" and apply them abroad. One facilitation option is the establishment of a Micromarket Chamber of Commerce to help Indian businesses and innovators develop these partnerships (and similar opportunities in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean, rural Africa and Latin America).
However, for the partnership to work, it would need direct bilateral contact points in each of the PICs, and not be run through middlemen in Fiji, who would raise the end cost and carry their own baggage into the relationship, potentially torpedoing any advantage for the PICs. The bilateral structure might take longer to set up, but it would be infinitely more stable and could add to eventual diplomatic and strategic ties — something that can't be handled via Fiji (China, for example, has major embassies in each of the countries it deals with in the Pacific).
The PICs welcome India as a new partner in the region (and some even recognise it as a very old friend — by, for example, pointing out the similarities between Kerala snake boats and Maori wakas). Any healthy relationship must be based on mutual respect and understanding.
Visiting Fiji is an excellent first step. The next step is to show the PICs that this is about more than just the diaspora — and that India's hand of friendship is there for all to grasp.
Cleo Paskal is adjunct faculty at Manipal University