India can and should do more to ensure that its global view includes the Pacific island countries. Even a small increase in investments there could yield rich dividends.

Nineteenth century Europe considered China and Japan the Far East. But for South Block today, the particular region beyond Japan, comprising the small countries in the Pacific Ocean, should be viewed as the Far East. During a recent weeklong sojourn in the area, I found the region to be of considerable potential significance for India, an aspiring great power. Our global view encompassing the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa should also include the Pacific island countries. Even a small increase in investments there could yield rich dividends.

The Pacific region

Our academic community can make a useful contribution by undertaking a study of conditions and challenges facing the Pacific region, particularly its small island states. Countries such as Kiribati, Palau and Tuvalu are not well-known names even amongst foreign affairs experts, but they should be. Why? First, because it is a large and diverse group going through a development experience similar to ours. Second, because the evolving power dynamics, marked by competition between the two Chinas and the dominant role played by Australia and New Zealand, call for India to become more aware and active. Our old connections with Fiji, growing ties with Australia, and the logic of our ‘Look East' policy seem to direct us towards a qualitative increase in development cooperation with the island countries.

The region is stamped by asymmetry. Excluding Australia and New Zealand, the region has its big power and hub — Fiji, having a population of 8,50,000, whereas Nauru is blessed with a total of 14,000 people, equal to those living in a small segment of Noida, just outside Delhi. The total land area of Australia — 7.6 million sq.km — stands in contrast to the 26 sq.km of Tuvalu.

The per capita income of New Zealand is about $29,000 but Samoa has to be content with $5,800. A country such as the Cook Islands is not even a sovereign state; it is a self-governing territory functioning in voluntary association with New Zealand.

Pacific Islands Forum

Given the distance from India and the peculiar topography of the region where island states are scattered far and wide, it is not surprising that we have only two resident diplomatic missions — in Suva, Fiji, and Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Other countries are covered through concurrent accreditation of our envoys based in the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, and Fiji. Hence, a regional institution can be used better.

The Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) is an active political grouping of 16 independent and self-governing states, representing about 32 million people. Its motto is ‘Excelling Together for the People of the Pacific.' Its leaders believe that the Pacific region “can, should and will be” a region of peace, harmony, security and economic prosperity so that its people can lead free and worthwhile lives. These states treasure the diversity, especially of cultures, traditions and religious beliefs. They aim to provide good governance and sustainable development, seeking partnerships “with neighbours and beyond” in order to develop their knowledge, improve communications and ensure a sustainable economic existence.

Key challenges

With seven founding members, the forum was established in 1971 as the South Pacific Forum. In 2000, its name was changed to the PIF. It has 16 members now, with New Caledonia and French Polynesia as associate members. The forum's observers, or special observers, include Tokelau, Wallis and Futuna, and Timor Leste. The PIF Secretariat is located in the capital Fiji, although the host country stands suspended from the forum at present. It serves to ensure implementation of the leaders' decisions and coordinate work of other regional organisations.

Island countries face similar challenges of socio-economic development as developing countries elsewhere, but their priorities seem to be different. During a training programme conducted by a colleague and I at Nadi in Fiji for diplomats of eight countries of the region, climate change, power supply, connectivity for travel and communication, maritime security and human resource development figured among the concerns. However, issues such as international terrorism, rivalries among the great powers, and corruption triggered yawns.

From a small island in the middle of the world's largest ocean, the sea seems an unlimited treasure but also an unfathomable threat. Storms and tsunamis define daily lives. Hence climate change has been a real concern. Rising sea levels threaten the inundation of states like Tuvalu and Kiribati. A recent PIF communiqué highlights climate change as “the greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and well-being of the peoples of the Pacific.” In calling upon the world to sign a post-Kyoto agreement, it pleads that the problem should be seen “in the longer term sustainability of economies, societies and peoples the world over.”

Energy is a key priority as these islands are located far from known sources of oil and gas. They are unable to contemplate the use of nuclear energy. One of them, the Marshall Islands, is yet to recover from the adverse effects of radioactivity caused by U.S. atomic tests during 1946-62. The real choice, therefore, revolves around the renewables — solar and wind energy, for which they need more assistance. Development of small industry, telephony, and better use of information technology can speed up development and reduce marginalisation.

The Indian angle

Of late, New Delhi seems to be paying a little more attention to the region. Ms Preneet Kaur, Minister of State for External Affairs, made pertinent observations during participation in the Post Pacific Forum Dialogue in Vanuatu last August. She reiterated India's commitment to the economic development of region and “its greater integration with the Indian economy”; stressed that India's “Regional Assistance Initiative” was based on priorities identified by regional leaders; and expressed appreciation for “the steady progress” made by them towards regional integration. She also announced India's decision to increase grants to $1,25,000 for each island country.

However, India can and should do more. It needs to craft a comprehensive long-term strategy on development cooperation with the region, keeping in view the geo-political trends. Further, it should show greater generosity. Emulating the model devised for cooperation with Africa, a respectable sum, say $50 million, should be set aside for development projects in the Pacific region. A composite study mission could be sent to the area to develop a blueprint and to recommend an allocation of resources after examining felt needs and the absorption capacity of the countries concerned.

Interaction needs to be intensified through all channels — bilateral, regional and multilateral. In particular, India's relations with the PIF Secretariat could be expanded, with India's High Commissioner in Fiji designated as our point man for this purpose. Our Permanent Mission in New York should be encouraged to take more initiatives to nurture ties with the Pacific countries. Our relations with Fiji should be diversified. The situation in the Pacific should be given greater prominence on the agenda for our dialogue with Australia and New Zealand.

The region is important to us not only in the context of the United Nations, but also in terms of China. Beijing has been active in several Indian Ocean countries closer to our shores. New Delhi has little reason to be shy in using the same currency. It must expand its horizons and become assertive in promoting the Pacific region's interests as well as its own.

(The author is a former Indian ambassador who visited Fiji recently.)

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