Pacific bridge

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s short but action-packed visit to Fiji gives India an opportunity to extend its development partnership throughout the Pacific region.

Published : Dec 10, 2014 12:30 IST

Prime Minister Narendra Modi being accorded a traditional welcome in Fiji.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi being accorded a traditional welcome in Fiji.

DAWN was just a glow on the horizon when the flight carrying Prime Minister Narendra Modi landed at the Nausori airport on November 19 where Fiji’s Prime Minister, Voreqe Bainimarama, was waiting with his entire Cabinet to welcome him. The 20-kilometre stretch of road from Nausori to the capital, Suva, was lined with banners, hoardings and crowds of schoolchildren waving flags. Beaming groups of Fijians of Indian origin and curious indigenous Fijians joined the crowd.

There was excitement in the air at the visit of the first foreign dignitary to Fiji after its transition to democracy (the September 17 elections ended military rule) and the first Indian Prime Minister to visit the country in 33 years. It was a red-letter day for Fiji’s Indian minority; old-timers recalled the rapturous welcome that greeted Indira Gandhi in 1981. An unprecedented crowd of over 10,000 filled up Albert Park in central Suva to watch the traditional solemn iTaukei welcome ceremony accorded to Modi. Addressing a civic meeting, Modi said: “There are times when we think of each other as distant lands, separated by oceans and seven time zones. Let us join hands to create an ocean of opportunity that stretches from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.”

India has had friendly ties with countries in the South Pacific region since their independence in the 1970s. Pacific Island states have often supported India in the United Nations and other international organisations.

But a series of military coups in Fiji strained the relationship. The distance between them increased further, especially after the Indian High Commissioner was expelled and the mission closed down in Fiji after the 1987 coup. But with ties revived, New Delhi has been in the past few years viewing the South Pacific as an extension of its Look East policy. In 2003, India became a dialogue partner in the regional grouping, the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), which helped formulate its policy for the South Pacific region.

Modi began his personal outreach to the Pacific region with a bilateral visit to Fiji and a meeting with the leaders of the Pacific Island Countries (PIC) especially invited to Suva for the occasion. There are 14 island states in the South Pacific: Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. Leaders of all the 14 countries were present at the meeting with the exception of Solomon Islands, which was holding its elections that day and was represented by its Ambassador.

India has been in regular contact with Pacific Island states at the PIF and the U.N. But Modi’s invitation to the Pacific leaders was meant to take the relationship to another level: he proposed a regular “India-Pacific Islands Cooperation” (FIPIC) meeting. He invited the Pacific leaders to the next meeting to be held in mid-2015 in one of the coastal locations in India.

With the changing global political dynamics and the shift in focus to the Asia-Pacific region, the significance of the South Pacific island states has increased. Strategically located, the South Pacific region lies on the major sea routes along which trillions of dollars worth of cargo is transported. The search for future resources has also drawn attention to the vast marine and mineral resources of the South Pacific. The southern Pacific region once used to be dominated by Australia, backed by the naval presence of the United States. China’s interest in the region centred on its tussle with Taiwan to gain diplomatic recognition. In the past decade, China has become a major aid donor to the Pacific states.

Two days after Modi’s visit, Chinese President Xi Jinping, who also was on his way home from the G20 summit in Australia, paid a three-day state visit to Fiji. The Chinese leader also met the leaders of seven Pacific Island states in Fiji (China does not have diplomatic relations with five Pacific states that recognise Taiwan). China’s presence has been increasing in the Pacific Islands; it is building large infrastructure projects in the islands and Chinese businessmen are making inroads into the country’s retail sector.

China has been closely involved for decades in the region, which is in its neighbourhood. Indian assistance to the South Pacific states cannot be compared to that of China’s, but the island states appreciate the Indian experience of development cooperation. The Indian emphasis has been to share its own development experience and align it with the expressed needs of the recipient countries. The small economies have only a limited capacity to absorb assistance because of the lack of infrastructure and the shortage of trained manpower. With the Pacific Islands, the development assistance has often been geared for immediate needs such as requests for ambulances or chainsaws for a project that entail the clearing of forests.

Overseas aid

Only one of the 14 island states, Papua New Guinea, is a large country. Fiji is a small-sized country and the rest are micro-states, whose populations number only a few thousands. Though they are small in land area, they are spread over an enormous expanse of the ocean. Their exclusive economic zones (EEZ) are huge; Kiribati’s EEZ, for instance, is larger than India’s EEZ.

Fishing, tourism, subsistence farming, remittances, and sale of exotic postal stamps and coins are the main sources of income for some of the small islands. Most of them are dependent on overseas aid; many of them fall under the U.N. list of Least Developed States (LDCs) and the region is among the most indebted in the world. Poor connectivity within the region, large distances, lack of trained personnel, limited infrastructure, proneness to natural disasters, and poor revenues are some of the constraints the island states face.

Gratified at two state visits to Fiji in quick succession, Bainimarama claimed that the meetings with the Pacific Island leaders in Fiji were an indicator of Fiji’s leadership in the South Pacific. The meetings with the Pacific leaders also served to clear the air for Bainimarama, who had been strongly criticised by some of them for his coup in 2006. Bainimarama won a decisive victory in the elections this September.

Modi announced a grant of $5 million to strengthen and modernise village, small and medium industries in Fiji, a line of credit of $70 million for a co-generation power plant at Rarav Sugar Mill, and another $5 million to upgrade the sugar industry in Fiji.

At the Pacific leaders’ meeting, Modi offered a Pan-Pacific system on the lines of the Pan-African e-system that connects 34 African countries for e-learning and diagnostics. Among the other proposals was a special Adaptation Fund of $1 million to provide technical assistance and training for capacity building in the Pacific Island countries. A solar energy project at the community level, which is popularly known as the solar grandmothers’ project, is under way in eight island countries, where it has proved to be a great success and will be extended to all the 14 countries. The assistance offered annually to each Pacific Island state will be increased from $125,000 to $200,000. Modi also announced visas on arrival for all the 14 Pacific countries.

A major concern is the effect of climate change on the islands. Low-lying islands in the Pacific are the most vulnerable to rising sea levels because of global warming; some like Vanuatu already feel the effects as the sea gouges away huge chunks of its coastline. Modi pointed out that India, too, was a nation with a long coastline and more than 1,000 islands that faced the searing impact of climate change. India spends more than 6 per cent of its GDP in adapting to its consequences and had a comprehensive national plan and strategy to both mitigate and adapt to climate change, he said.

Fiji is the data collection hub for India’s Mars Orbiter Mission. Modi thanked Fiji for hosting Indian scientists for monitoring the mission. The Pacific leaders showed keen interest in the space applications and data for weather forecasting, agriculture, resource mapping of the Pacific, conservation, climate change and natural disasters. The meeting in Suva was the first direct interaction between India and the Pacific leaders. Fiji rates India as an important development partner. With its new friendship with the Pacific leaders, India has the opportunity to extend its development partnership throughout the region.

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