Why did N. Modi invite the leaders of the Pacific island countries to the “pink” city of Jaipur? The answer is both simple and complicated. At first glance it may seem that the Indian Prime Minister, who met with the participants of the second Summit of the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) in Jaipur on 21-22 August, i.e. almost on the eve of the Anniversary Session of the UN General Assembly in September, was thinking primarily about how to get them to vote for the realization of India’s long-standing desire to have a permanent seat on the Security Council. Indeed, India is counting on strong support from 10 of the 12 countries in Oceania that have the right to vote in the United Nations. The rest have not yet decided on their position.
But this is only one of the Indian Prime Minister’s many foreign policy goals in Oceania. He has demonstrated an enviable mobility, spending more than two months abroad in the first year in office alone and visited over 20 countries, thus making his policies on the world stage more dynamic and more noticeable.
He attracted public attention with his call to change course from “Look East”, to its more active phase – “Act East”, during which India’s strong ties with even the small islands of the South Seas will become more important,. Apparently, such a decisive shift was long in the making, since development in the sub-region, hailed as a “zone of privileged interests” by Manmohan Singh, had proceeded rather sluggishly. Previously, Delhi did not get around to the Oceania countries – priority had been given to the Southeast and East Asia.
Why, then, has there been a new surge of interest in these tiny islands? There are several motives. Firstly, the island world has taken on greater strategic importance in the calculations of the US and its allies, as well as China and India, especially in the context of Washington’s ”turning” towards Asia, and the formation of the Indo-Pacific mega-region. A hallmark in this context was the first attendance by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Summit of the Forum in Oceania (PIF) in the Cook Islands in 2012, as well as a visit to Fiji in February the same year, by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, to discuss cooperation in the field of energy and space. There were plans to locate the monitoring station of the GLONASS system there.
Secondly, business hopes to reap great profits fromthe local resources – marine sediments, minerals and fishing. Thirdly, China’s claims to dominance, as well as its marked intensification of measures to strengthen its position in the politics and economy of the island countries has been responsible for the more acute changes in the sub-region. Beijing was clearly concerned about the search for a possible network of development sites in Fiji, Tonga and Papua New Guinea (PNG), which some Western politicians have hastened to christen the second edition of the “string of pearls” strategy that has been quite successfully implemented by Chinese strategists in the Indian Ocean zone. The two “strings”, in all probability, will be important elements of China’s Marine Silk Route.
Given the rebalancing process within the complex set of different vectors of forces and interests, the pressure from some strata of the political elite and military experts, as well as the Chinese factor, India has taken measures in order to play a more prominent role in the sub-region. It joined PIF in 2003, increased economic assistance to almost all countries, and in August 2006 included the fleets of Fiji, Tonga and Papua New Guinea in subsequent maneuvers with their neighbors, Australia and New Zealand, for the first time.
Still, Delhi placed greater emphasis on strengthening trade, economic, cultural, educational and social interactions, remaining behind Beijing, for example, in the number of diplomatic missions (Beijing – has them in almost all areas), while India has them only in Fiji and Papua New Guinea.
Delhi could hardly have been satisfied with the results of such haphazard measures, when, clearly, there was a need to reassess the role of the sub-region and to work more intensely on projecting India’s diverse capabilities in the South Seas. In 2012, a project was initiated, taking into account the local conditions of the villages, to build small devices for solar energy. In 2013, the “long tail” strategy was implemented in Tonga – a long-term development program of socio-economic relations with India providing information technologies and services, as well as a system of long distance television learning, which, if successful, will be extended to other archipelagos.
Of course, the Fiji Islands play a key role in India’s expanding ties with Oceania because of their central location and the significant impact of their higher level of economic development, attraction for tourists, and old historical and cultural ties with a significant portion of the population with Indian roots. Focusing on Suva, at a PIF session in 2009, India tried to help the Fijian authorities to decide on the country’s return to the organization after the military coup of 2006 and the lifting of the sanctions that had been imposed. However, Australia, the initiator of Fiji’s expulsion from the Forum, prevented these efforts. Nonetheless, at the Forum’s 13th summit India again raised the issue of Fiji’s membership renewal in this structure and its readiness to assist in the development of a “road map” before the 14th Forum elections in order to rebuild the democratic conditions in the archipelago
Modi’s visit to Fiji in November 2014, the first in 33 years, gave additional dynamism to bilateral relations with Fiji specifically and with Oceania in general. India increased its economic aid from $US 125,000 to $US 200,000annually. A program of technical and economic cooperation was proposed in the fields of construction, agriculture, fisheries, water desalination, renewable energy, and the development of mineral and marine resources, etc. The idea of creating training modules for new technologies and other issues of cooperation were debated with great interest at the second FIPIC meeting.
But one of the most resonant topics in Jaipur was N. Modi’s proposal to create the Space Technology Applications Center. Praising Fiji’s contribution to the process of India’s Mars exploration (the archipelago authorities granted a group of 18 Indian scientists and engineers the opportunity to observe the “Mars Orbitor Mission” probe sent into orbit at the beginning of 2014) from Fijian territory, the Prime Minister chose this island nation for the construction of the spaceport. Here, India plans to create a disaster management system, including the development of human resources and the use of space technology for early warning and incident response.
Precedent plans to build spaceports in the Pacific Islands have existed since the late 1980s, when others locations such as Kiribati, Indonesia, Hawaii, etc. were of interest to the United States, Japan, and China. The reason being their proximity the equatorial zone, where strong rotation promotes the release of spacecraft into orbit with less fuel expenses. At the beginning of the XXI century, the private American company “InterOrbital Systems” had its eye on a platform for a launch site on the Island of Eua (Tonga) to organize the launch of commercial satellites with rich tourists on board. In New Zealand, in 2009 in commemoration of the great New Zealand physicist – Rutherford – another New Zealand scientist, P. Black, created “Rocket Lab Ltd” which became the first private company in the southern hemisphere, to go into space independently, launching the rocket Ātea-1 (“space” in the Maori language) from the Great Mercury Island near Koromandel.
Although the Indian project is aimed at studying the problems of climate change and the creation of an early warning system of natural and other threats, for the traditional Polynesian and Melanesian societies, who have experienced the horror of nuclear tests on Bikini or Mururoa, the question may arise: might not this initiative lead to a new round of the space race in this unique region, but this time for other purposes?
Nina Lebedeva, leading scholar at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.