For India, small is big

Leaders of Asia-Pacific island nations are in India to participate in the Forum for India-Pacific Island Countries (FIPIC) Summit scheduled to be held on Aug, 21, 2015 in Jaipur.
Leaders of Asia-Pacific island nations are in India to participate in the Forum for India-Pacific Island Countries (FIPIC) Summit scheduled to be held on Aug, 21, 2015 in Jaipur. PHOTO: AFP

Today, India is hosting a unique diplomatic summit with 14 tiny Asia-Pacific island nations as part of its extended "Act East" policy.

Most Indians have never heard of countries such as Tonga, Tuvalu, Nauru, Samoa, Vanuatu, Niue, Micronesia or the Marshall Islands - but the presence of their heads of state in the northern Indian city of Jaipur is set to raise awareness about them and elevate their strategic importance in Asia.

That size is not the be-all and end-all in world affairs is dawning on people in India, thanks to the vision of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has personally visited tiny states such as Fiji, the Seychelles and Mauritius to draw them closer to New Delhi.

His ability to make weak players feel comfortable that a rising power such as India heeds their concerns is proving to be an effective foil for India's previous image as a bully or a Big Brother trying to impose its will on smaller or less organised societies, especially in South Asia.

Mr Modi's claim that India "does not operate with the haughtiness of being stronger but on the principle of walking shoulder to shoulder with other nations" has gone down well with foreign interlocutors, particularly in the Pacific Islands.

They have enthusiastically welcomed India's offers of tele-medicine, tele-education, space cooperation, and technical aid for bolstering democracy and community activities.

Reciprocally, as a sizeable voting bloc in the United Nations General Assembly, they have indicated support for India's bid to secure permanent membership on the Security Council.

The collective power of 14 Pacific Island votes is crucial for India, as it wants to ensure adequate numbers within the 53-member Asia-Pacific Group of the UN.

The Pacific Islands are basking in the limelight as Asia's big two - India and China - compete to secure their loyalties.

Mr Modi's visit to Fiji to attend the first Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC), held in November last year, was followed within two days by the arrival of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who landed in Suva with a bagful of goodies.

This race for expanded spheres of influence need not be a zero-sum game. Mr Modi, a self-avowed admirer of China's modernisation, stresses areas of cooperation where India can be more helpful to the Pacific Islands than China can.

Beijing has a huge lead over New Delhi in physical infrastructure construction and doling out massive loans, but the latter is showcasing advantages it can offer in enhancing human capital, environmental protection and democracy promotion.

In courting small and needy countries like the Pacific Islands, Mr Modi is also taking a leaf out of the Chinese foreign policy book - selectively chasing after sub-regions of the world that are lacking in military and economic power, and where there are vacuums or imbalances that can be filled by emerging actors.

Like a buyer of distressed or underrated assets, China has made the Pacific Islands integral to its grand strategy of accessing underwater minerals, checking the sway of the United States and its regional allies such as Australia and New Zealand, and achieving the reunification of Taiwan.

Yet, as scholar Jian Yang has written, China has "serious image problems" in the Pacific and cannot turn into a "genuine hegemon" there.

Herein lies an opportunity for Mr Modi, who is redefining India's core national interests on a geographically wider canvas and projecting India as a "leading power" to push for strategic balance and stability in Asia.

The gathering of Pacific Island presidents in Jaipur is a reification of this vast ambition, and a sign that India is percolating into the nooks and corners of Asia.

•The writer is a professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 21, 2015, with the headline 'For India, small is big'. Print Edition | Subscribe