Pacific connection

Print edition : December 02, 2005

The summit meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, on October 27. The 16 member-countries range from Australia to the tiny island of Nauru. - DAVID GRAY/REUTERS

India's ties with the Pacific region are of mutual benefit; while the island states receive development aid and assistance in matters of governance, India raises its profile and extends its influence.

LAST summer, the government of Nauru faced a financial collapse; its computer system was malfunctioning with the result that the budget could not be passed in Parliament before the end of the fiscal year. The Nauruans were advised by an Australian computer firm to junk the computer system. The suggestion was not palatable to the cash-strapped government and the Nauru government finally turned to India for help. An Indian expert from CMC Ltd was sent out. The hardware engineer had the computer system operational within 10 days and the Nauru government's financial transactions resumed without any major expenditure.

India gave the Federated States of Micronesia Rs.21 lakhs in immediate assistance to purchase an oil extraction plant for producing virgin coconut oil. The government of Palau received kitchen equipment for its hospitals, including industrial steam cookers and dishwashers.

Small island states often face problems that, despite the small sums of money involved, should be an immediate priority for assistance. India has made these offers of assistance to the island territories of the Pacific region since it became a dialogue partner of the Pacific Islands Forum in 2003. At a recent summit meeting of the Forum, held at Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, on October 25-27, members spoke of collectively sourcing medicines from India. The Pacific leaders expressed "grave concern" over the risk of a bird flu epidemic and called for a mobilisation of resources to develop preparedness and response plans.

The South Pacific region has a string of small island states, some of them mere dots on the map in a huge expanse of ocean. The Pacific Islands Forum, geographically one of the largest regional organisations in the world, has a unique membership that ranges from the tiny nation of Nauru to the large landmass ofNew Guinea. The vast Pacific Ocean has huge fishing resources and good prospects for deep-sea mining.

Initially known as the South Pacific Forum, it was renamed the Pacific Island Forum in 2000 to reflect its enlarged membership. Its 16 members are Australia, the Cook Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Fiji Islands, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. Interest in the Forum has been increasing among Pacific-rim countries; the Forum's dialogue partners include the United States, Canada, France, Britain, China, South Korea, Japan, the European Union, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and India.

Unlike most regional organisations, the Pacific region has wide geographical variations and over 1,200 languages (80 per cent of which belong to Papua New Guinea). The Federated States of Micronesia include hundreds of islands and atolls spread over 2,500 kilometres with a landmass of only 702 km; Nauru is a single island in the central Pacific which is only 27 km in length and thousands of kilometres from its nearest neighbour; Kiribati consists of three groups of islands that straddle the Equator and encompass three million square kilometres of ocean; Palau has 200 islands with a total land area of about 500 sq km; Papua New Guinea consists of the eastern part of the island of New Guinea and its offshore islands; Tuvalu has five atolls and four coral islands with a total land area of 25.9 sq km.

Intra-Pacific trade has been low, about 2 per cent of the total trade in the region. The strongest economic ties have been between Australia, New Zealand, Britain, France and the U.S. and their former colonies. In recent years the fastest-growing economies are in Asia. China, South Korea, India, Taiwan and Japan - and there have been moves to develop bilateral and multilateral linkages between Asia and the Pacific region. The Pacific countries have adopted a 'Look North' policy and have been increasing their engagement with countries from the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the Forum now has observer status at Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and ASEAN Regional Forum meetings. Papua New Guinea and East Timor have expressed their desire to act as bridges between Asia and the Pacific islands.

India's interest in the Pacific region is a logical extension of its Look East policy, which was initially aimed at the South-East Asian region, and now extends further eastwards to Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific. Trade ties with this region have grown; India has emerged as Australia's sixth largest export market. India has an obvious strategic interest in the Fiji Islands as the most developed of the Pacific island states and the home of over three lakh people of Indian origin. The partnership with the Pacific Islands Forum has given a new dimension to India's growing engagement in the South Pacific region.

One of the Papua New Guinean dancers performing at the opening ceremony.-DAVID GRAY/REUTERS

The Pacific islands have looked to India for assistance because of its experience in development. However, as small countries with limited expertise in international negotiations, some Forum members have sought Indian assistance in the field of international relations such as preparing the case for safeguarding their interests at the World Trade Organisation negotiations.

Fiji has been a vocal supporter of India's candidature in the United Nations Security Council. During his speech at the U.N. General Assembly, Fiji's Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase named Japan and India as the two countries that should have seats on an expanded Security Council. Fiji was among the six Pacific nations that supported the G-4 resolution at the U.N., the others being Kiribati, Nauru, Palau, Tuvalu and Solomon Islands.

India has begun structured and sustained interaction with Forum countries, taking into account their special needs. Both sides have tried to develop an innovative relationship. India's experience with its own island territories has given it an understanding of the challenges and unique requirements of developing small islands while protecting their fragile ecosystems. At a dialogue meeting in 2004, India made a proposal to conduct a study on the chemical effects of Kava. A non-alcoholic, mildly soporific drink, Kava is consumed throughout the Pacific and is part of the traditional rituals of the tribal societies. Use of Kava became popular in Western countries for its therapeutic effects and became a major export item for several Pacific countries. However, some reports have linked liver toxicity to Kava consumption and knocked it out of the international market. Forum members eagerly welcomed the offer to conduct tests on Kava at Indian laboratories since it plays an important role on the lives of the islanders as well as provides a source of income to them. Pacific islanders have learnt the hard way to care for their environment, with global warming and rising ocean levels eating into their territories. The isolated nature and small size of the islands has meant that over-exploitation has had much severe consequences for their fragile ecosystem.

Indian assistance to the Pacific islands may be small in monetary terms, but it has a wide impact. Coconut is widely grown on the Pacific islands but is mainly utilised for food and oil. Senior officials from the Coconut Development Authority of Fiji and Micronesia have visited the Coconut Board in Kerala to learn how to increase the productivity of coconut plantations by using all the components of the coconut palm and making better use of land through intercropping with other plants. The sugar industry is one of the mainstays of Fiji's economy, but the preferential pricing mechanism with the European Union is due to be phased out. India has offered technical assistance to revitalise the sugar industry in Fiji. The Sugar Technology Mission is to upgrade the industry through a soft loan of $86 million from the EXIM Bank of India. The Marshall Islands received solar equipment panes worth Rs.1 crore, while Kiribati was provided with physiotherapy and orthopaedic equipment for its main hospital. Trainees from Micronesia have attended special programmes at the Tata Economic Research Institute.

With a growing number of conventions, treaties and international organisations, the significance of international relations has increased for small states. Under its International Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) programme, India has offered training programmes for diplomats from Pacific countries. Government officials have attended courses on diplomacy as well as parliamentary activity, including the drafting of legislation. A senior officer from the Kiribati Parliament attended a programme for foreign parliamentary officials in Delhi in November 2004 and a senior parliamentary counsel attended a course on legislative drafting for foreign parliamentary and government officials.

India's growing engagement with the Pacific region is of mutual benefit; its increasing engagement with the region has raised its profile in the Pacific countries and enhanced its influence among a group of small, developing countries.

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