by GAURI AGARWAL 9 October 2018
The 21st Century is described as the Pacific Century to denote the significant role the Pacific island countries are going to play in the global political, trade and strategic realms in the coming decades. The region has been an important geostrategic area with powers competing with other littoral states for influence and access to land and sea-based resources. Important sea lanes of communication traverse this world’s largest ocean linking Asia with the Americas.
Recently there has been a growing impetus by various countries to engage in this region with a renewed focus on enhancing India’s involvement to counter China’s dominance.
The provision of Chinese aid to the Pacific was initially being motivated by its desire to prevent Taiwan from winning diplomatic supporters. But lately, there has been an increase in its aid and loans which can be seen as a regional manifestation of China’s broader strategy of engagement with the developing world. It wants to demonstrate that it is a responsible power whose economic rise will not come at the expense of smaller developing states. It also seeks to garner support for election to UN bodies such as the Human Rights Council and support for its positions on Taiwan, Tibet and the South China Sea amongst others.
China’s energy-hungry and export-driven economy are heavily dependent on raw material and fuel imports. Hence, Beijing is seeking to prop up its influence over the regional sea lines of communication. The Chinese government is also aiming to engage actively with Pacific states on the exploration of seabed mining, extract hydrocarbons, wood and rare earth elements amongst other things from the Pacific seabed.
On the other hand, India has had historical engagement with the Pacific since the 1900s as Indian workers were brought to Fiji to work in sugarcane plantations. Since then India has invigorated development ties with all the Pacific island countries. India has shown interest in the Pacific affairs by participating in the Pacific Islands Forum annually from 2002. India also has begun to provide foreign aid to the islands in the South Pacific by offering soft loans for development projects. In 2014 first Indo-Pacific island summit was held which laid the establishment of Forum for India and Pacific Island Countries (FIPIC). In 2017 India hosted India-Pacific Islands Sustainable Development Conference in which important discussions were held to minimize the serious impact of natural hazards, limiting human and economic loss through knowledge sharing, technology sharing, and capacity building.
India seeks the support of the Pacific states for its efforts to gain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Moreover, India is seen as an important partner for Australia and other Asia Pacific powers that are concerned about China’s rise and are uncertain about US regional commitment. Recently The Pentagon renamed its Pacific Command the ‘Indo-Pacific Command’ in an attempt to put India at the centre of its security strategy.
India and France signed a logistics exchange agreement (France has many overseas territories in the Pacific) which gives an opportunity for Indian access to French military bases. Also, India can effectively use its existing military attaches in Chile which with India’s military cooperation can develop amphibious and logistics capabilities in the Pacific.
The quadrilateral format of US, India, Japan, and Australia is one of the many multilateral dialogues that can be an anchor in the Indo-Pacific region. Similarly, groupings such as BIMSTEC, EAS, RCEP, APEC, and ASEAN can help India in deepening engagement with the region.
China remains the overwhelming power in the Indo-Pacific. Given China’s expanding economic, political and strategic influence across the Indian Ocean, the idea of Indo-Pacific regional institutions without China will stoke regional tensions. This will weaken the credibility of any legitimate regional framework that seeks to replace existing institutional structures of the Asia-Pacific region.
Moreover, India’s current maritime presence in the Pacific Islands is limited, as its Eastern Fleet based in Vishakhapatnam has operations up to the Straits of Malacca but not as far as the Pacific Islands. India also does not have a permanent military presence, and India’s interests east of Sumatra are not given prime importance. India also has its domestic issues including an ineffective bureaucracy, corruption, and a national development priority. India can’t allow itself to be a part of power games with China given the already disturbing nature between the two regionally and globally.
India has to pro-actively construct a space that focuses on increasing mutually beneficial engagements. As our Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue 2018 affirmed that India views Indo-Pacific as a “free, open, and inclusive” region, not “directed against any country,” with “Southeast Asia at its centre,” and a space that requires a “common rules-based order” that respects “sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as equality of all nations.”
Asia, Oceania, and Americas are critical geopolitical spaces of the Pacific Rim. The military, economic and strategic interests of the regional stakeholders have interdependent relationships. Hence, Shared responsibility and stable multi-stakeholder partnership can be the only guiding principles amongst countries. Common concerns faced such as maritime security, and economic challenges can be dealt with together through the integration of these regions.