In the Pacific islands, an Indian counter to China
The calls for India to “emerge as a third power” are significant, given that G20 presidency is committed for being a bridge builder in a polarised global order
It’s been a week of high-powered diplomacy for New Delhi: G7, Quad and Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s meeting with Ukrainian PM Volodymyr Zelenskyy at Hiroshima, Japan, ending with a showstopping visit to Australia.
Beyond these high-profile meets, however, an important process played out in a remote corner of the world before the stop over in Sydney. It was highlighted not only by the warm ceremonial accorded to Modi by PM James Marape of Papua New Guinea, but the firm vote of confidence in India as both leaders opened the 3rd Forum for India–Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) meet. “We are victims of global power play... You (PM Modi) are the leader of Global South. We will rally behind your (India’s) leadership at global forums,” Marape said.
As China and America vie for influence, compounding the friction of internal fault lines in this small but strategic geography, this endorsement by the Pacific Island countries (PICs) for India is a testament to the incremental gains made by New Delhi as a development partner. It also underscores how India is hoping to carve out its space as an alternative to countries that don’t want to get caught in the crossfire of binary choices in the Indo-Pacific.
PM Modi’s outreach to the PICs came after United States (US) President Joe Biden’s visit to the region was cancelled. China’s presence as a provider of development aid, the third-largest trading partner, and a new avatar as security guarantor to the PICs, has unnerved the US and caused alarm in Australia and New Zealand.
So, India engaging leaders and listening to them in this larger geopolitical context was consequential. But, more importantly, PM Modi’s mindfully chosen language of speaking to this region — as one not of “small island nations” but “large ocean countries”, “respecting (your) priorities” and acknowledging “pride” for being chosen as a development partner of the PICs — has struck the right chord. It demonstrates an equal, open and inclusive vision for the Indo-Pacific that New Delhi vouches for.
PM Modi’s 12-point plan at FIPIC continues to emphasise India’s role as a development partner and capacity builder with a slew of granular proposals. In its third iteration, the forum, which PM Modi started in 2014 for the 14 countries, focused on the specific demands of these nations, given the rising problems of food, energy security and climate action exacerbated by the Ukraine crises.
India’s niche competencies in inexpensive renewable energy and climate-resilient infrastructure remain on the table. India’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative addresses various aspects of the blue economy crucial to the region.
India’s expertise as a regional skill development partner has seen programmes in IT and cybersecurity, digital economy, solar electrification and training of hydrologists. Remember that India’s transformational project of training rural women from the Pacific at Barefoot College in Rajasthan to become solar engineers, popular as the Solar Mamas project, has reaped dividends.
Similarly, FIPIC has been instrumental in helping the PICs build niche markets and businesses in the small and medium enterprises sector. Notably, India has doubled down on health infrastructure support to overcome Covid-19 setbacks. These measures, India hopes, anchors meaningful presence and reassures support in a way that differentiates it from Beijing’s hardball cheque book diplomacy.
In an era where connectivity is contested and development aid weaponised, New Delhi is trying to extend help not in zero-sum game terms but in a way that is both sustainable and in line with its capacity to deliver beyond rhetoric.
The appetite for an Indian presence in the region and calls for India to “emerge as a third power” are significant, given that India’s G20 presidency is committed to being a bridge builder in a polarised global order.
The Quad summit underlined how the group was throwing its weight behind overlapping national and regional initiatives across sectors to reassure regions, such as the Pacific, of its positive agenda. PM Modi reiterated the importance of this collective action. Viewed by the PICs as independent from bloc-style politics, New Delhi is helping build this strategic trust. If it delivers, the “India way in the Indo-Pacific” would find more traction.
Shruti Pandalai is fellow, MP-IDSA. The views expressed are personal.
Her social media handle is @shrutipandalai on Twitter.