India – Pacific Islands relations: Significance and Challenges – Explained, pointwise

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India-Pacific Islands relations have become increasingly important in today’s geopolitical landscape. These relations are characterised by mutual respect, shared cultural links, and a commitment to sustainable development. The strategic significance of this relationship is defined by India’s Act East Policy, the Indo-Pacific Vision, and bolstered by the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC).

However, the engagement faces challenges, notably the increasing influence of global powers like China and the US in the region. Balancing geopolitical interests with the islands’ development needs and maintaining consistent outreach amidst geographical distances constitute key aspects of the evolving relationship. This complex dynamic underlines the significance and challenges of India-Pacific Islands relations.  

About Pacific Islands

India – Pacific Islands relations
Source: Research gate

The Pacific Islands, also known as Pacific Island Countries (PICs), consist of 14 member nations including Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu. With unique challenges such as climate change and water scarcity, the PICs are nonetheless rich in culture and natural beauty. Currently, they have become a strategic region with increased attention from global powers, including India, the US, and China, each vying for influence through security, economic, and developmental partnerships.

Must read: Pacific Small Islands Developing States (PSIDS)

What are the historic ties between India – Pacific Islands relations?

Historical background: Historically, the relationship between India and the Pacific Island countries (PICs) has been relatively low-key, but cordial. There has been little direct interaction, largely due to the vast geographical distance and lack of significant strategic or economic interests.  

Shared commonwealth history: Several Pacific Island nations, including Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands, share a history with India as former British colonies. This shared history as part of the British Empire has created commonalities in governmental, legal, and educational systems, and has also resulted in English being a widely spoken language in these countries.  

Indian diaspora in the Pacific Islands: Significant Indian diaspora communities, especially in Fiji, have played a role in building people-to-people ties. The Indian community in Fiji, mostly descendants of indentured labourers brought to the islands by the British in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, constitutes a significant portion of the country’s population. 

 “Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation” (FIPIC): In recent years, the relationship between India and the PICs has become more active, notably with the establishment of the Forum for IndiaPacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) in 2014. Initiated by India, FIPIC aims to enhance India’s engagement with the Pacific Island countries.  

Read more: What is the FIPIC summit that PM Modi attended in Papua New Guinea?

How India aims to strengthen India – Pacific Islands relations?

India – Pacific Islands
Source: United news of India

India unveiled a 12-point action plan during the third Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation Summit. This highlights the areas of cooperation between India and the Pacific Islands. The steps in the action plan include:  

Healthcare infrastructure development: India pledged to boost healthcare infrastructure in the islands, with a particular focus on building a 100-bed regional super-speciality hospital in Fiji.  

Regional IT and cyber security training hub: To address the growing challenges in the digital realm, India plans to establish a regional IT and cybersecurity training hub in Papua New Guinea.  

Jaipur foot camps: India promises to organize Jaipur Foot Camps in the region every year, helping provide prosthetic limbs to those in need.  

Solar projects: Acknowledging the potential of renewable energy, India intends to implement solar projects to assist these nations in their energy requirements.  

Desalination units: To combat water scarcity issues in these islands, India has committed to providing desalination units.

Sea ambulances: Aiming to improve emergency medical services, India plans to provide sea ambulances for all 14 Pacific Island countries.  

Dialysis units: As part of healthcare infrastructure improvement, India plans to establish dialysis units to help address kidney-related health issues in the region.  

Round-the-clock helpline: To provide immediate assistance and support, India promises to establish a 24/7 helpline service.  

Apart from this, India involves a commitment to human-centric development, addressing climate change, enhancing trade relations, and facilitating capacity building in these nations.  

Read more: India-US teaming up on Pacific Islands will trouble China. That’s welcome

What is the significance of India to Pacific Islands and vice versa?  

Significance of India to Pacific Islands:

Development partner: India is a crucial development partner for the Pacific Island nations. With its human-centric approach, India offers support in critical sectors such as healthcare, IT, and climate change. The country’s recent commitment to providing a range of services, from setting up a regional super-speciality hospital to the establishment of IT and cybersecurity hubs, underlines its important role in facilitating development in these nations.  

Non-indebted aid: India’s approach to providing developmental aid is based on not increasing the indebtedness of these nations. This model of cooperation is significant for Pacific Island countries, especially given concerns about debt traps associated with some forms of international aid.  

Diplomatic balance: India’s increasing engagement with Pacific Island nations helps provide a diplomatic balance in the region, particularly given the strategic competition between other major powers.

Significance of Pacific Islands to India

Strategic positioning: The Pacific Islands hold strategic significance for India due to their location. An enhanced presence and improved relations in the region can help India extend its influence, especially within the context of the Indo-Pacific discourse.  

Counterbalance to China: With China also actively engaged in the region, India’s involvement can serve as a counterbalance. Building stronger ties with the Pacific Islands can help India challenge China’s growing influence.  

Partnership in global forums: Pacific Island nations appreciate India for voicing the concerns of the Global South at international forums. They can be valuable partners for India in multilateral forums, supporting each other on issues of common concern.  

Economic opportunities: The Pacific Islands can offer significant economic opportunities for Indian businesses, particularly in sectors such as healthcare, IT, renewable energy, and infrastructure development.

Read more: Explained: What is the US-led ‘Partners in the Blue Pacific’ initiative to counter China?

What are the challenges faced in India – Pacific Islands relations?

Geographical distance: One of the key challenges faced in India – Pacific Islands relations is the significant geographical distance between them. This can lead to complacency and make consistent engagement difficult.  

China’s influence: China’s expanding influence in the Pacific region poses a major challenge to India. Beijing, with its deep pockets and the world’s largest navy, has been investing heavily in the region, which may put India at a disadvantage. It can also lead to strategic security concerns for India, particularly if China succeeds in establishing a strong foothold in these islands.  

The approach of the USA: The geopolitical tension between the US and Russia could potentially influence India-Pacific Islands relations. The recent US defence and maritime surveillance agreement with Papua New Guinea show the US’s intent to counterbalance China in the region. This complicates the dynamics of India’s engagement with the Pacific Islands, as it must navigate these geopolitical differences while pursuing its own interests.  

Other strategic competitions: The Pacific Islands are becoming a strategic battleground for major powers, which could put these nations in a difficult position and potentially strain their relations with India. It could turn their attention from developmental issues to power politics, which could hinder India’s human-centric approach.  

Sustainability of projects: Ensuring the sustainability of development projects is another challenge. Given the small size and often remote locations of these islands, ensuring efficient implementation and long-term operation of projects can be difficult.

Must read: The strategic significance of Indo-Pacific region for India

What should be done to strengthen India – Pacific Islands relations?

Consistent outreach and engagement: To strengthen relations, India needs to ensure consistent and proactive engagement with the Pacific Island Countries (PICs). Regular high-level exchanges, both bilaterally and through multilateral forums like the Forum for India Pacific Islands Cooperation, should be maintained.  

Follow-through on promises: India needs to deliver on the commitments made to PICs. The 12-step action plan must be implemented effectively and within specified timelines.  

Economic engagement: India should look to increase its economic engagement with the PICs. It can include enhancing trade, investment, and aid, as well as encouraging Indian businesses to explore opportunities in the PICs.  

People-to-people ties: Enhancing people-to-people connections can go a long way in strengthening the relationship. This can involve exchanges in culture, education, science and technology, sports, and more.  

Maritime capacity building: India should also consider helping PICs build their maritime capacity, given their geographical nature. This could involve assisting in areas like maritime surveillance, disaster management, and protection of Exclusive Economic Zones.  

Cooperation with other major powers: India could consider collaborating with like-minded countries, like the US, Australia, and Japan, in their engagement with PICs. This can help present a balanced alternative to China’s influence in the region. However, this needs to be done carefully, ensuring that the primary interests of PICs are not overshadowed by the strategic interests of these major powers. 

Sources: Times of India (Article 1 and Article 2), Hindustan Times (Article 1 and Article 2), Indian Express, Eurasian TimesDeccan Herald and Telegraph India.

Syllabus: GS 2: International Relations: Effect of policies and politics of developed and developing countries on India’s interests.

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