India courts Pacific island nations as counter to China

Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj (at far left) looking on as Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomed Samoa's Premier Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Sailele Malielegaoi to the Presidential Palace yesterday. New Delhi is hosting the heads and representatives o
Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj (at far left) looking on as Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomed Samoa's Premier Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Sailele Malielegaoi to the Presidential Palace yesterday. New Delhi is hosting the heads and representatives of 14 Pacific nations at the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Delhi hosts forum of strategically located isles forming strong voting bloc at UN

Prime Minister Narendra Modi yesterday said the Indian Ocean and Pacific region was emerging as a "centre of gravity of global opportunities" as he wooed Pacific island nations to counter the strong presence of China.

He was hosting the heads and representatives of 14 Pacific nations at the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (Fipic), which is being held in India for the first time.

"The centre of gravity of global opportunities and challenges are shifting to the Pacific and Indian Ocean region. The fortunes of nations in and around the two oceans are inter-linked," said Mr Modi at the forum in the northern city of Jaipur. "Small island states may add up to small land area and even smaller population. But they are as important for us as any other nation."

India rolled out the red carpet for the leaders, with President Pranab Mukherjee throwing a ceremonial reception on Thursday and Mr Modi holding bilateral meetings. The leaders were also taken to top tourist attractions - from the Taj Mahal in Agra to palaces in Jaipur.

The Pacific nations of Cook Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Nauru, Kiribati, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Samoa, Niue, Palau, Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Fiji and Papua New Guinea have not traditionally figured as a priority in India's foreign policy. But Mr Modi has given importance to the region with a visit to Fiji, the first by an Indian prime minister in over three decades, in November last year.

Analysts say India is keen to extend its influence from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific to keep China's rise in check, although it cannot compete with Beijing's resources.

During that visit, Mr Modi took part in the first Fipic summit and also increased India's development assistance to US$200,000 (S$281,000) from US$125,000 annually to each of the 14 nations for infrastructure and projects in solar energy, among others.

The outreach to the Pacific islands comes as Mr Modi also shores up ties with Indian Ocean nations.

During a visit to Mauritius, Seychelles and Sri Lanka in March, he secured the rights to develop two islands and set up a radar system.

Analysts say India is keen to extend its influence from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific to keep China's rise in check, although it cannot compete with Beijing's resources.

"China has engaged with the smallest of nations while India has had a hands-off approach till now... The meeting with island nations is very important because they have been looking to India to play a major role," said Dr Rajeswari Rajagopalan, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. "India has started to feel that it needs to better manage the rise of China."

Dr Rajiv Nayan, senior research associate at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, said: "It is very important that India is reaching out to the countries of Pacific Asia. This could be useful for getting support in the international organisations. Transnational and maritime security has further made these countries relevant."

Though small in size, the island nations, which are strategically located, form an important voting bloc in the United Nations - and are also an influential group in global climate talks.

President Mukherjee, during a speech on Thursday, noted that India and the Pacific island countries could work together to mitigate the impact of climate change.

India is looking at cooperation in areas such as renewable energy and agriculture and has offered to share its experience in the use of low-carbon and renewable technologies. A plan to set up a satellite monitoring station in Fiji is also in the works.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 22, 2015, with the headline 'India courts Pacific island nations as counter to China'. Print Edition | Subscribe