11. November 2014. Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi’s upcoming visit to Fiji should add a stopover in the neighbouring Kingdom of Tonga. Further, in light of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Fiji just two days after Modi, a stopover would show added commitment to the region as a whole and be opportune for reviving relations. (Xi’s visit may be critical for further military modernisation of Fiji, which will affect the balance of power in the region and beyond.)
Tonga has long been a friend to India. As recently as 27th of September, HM King George Tupou VI expressed Tonga’s full support for reform of the United Nation’s Security Council. This desire to democratise the most powerful council in the world, signals the continuing convergence of key core interests between Tonga and India. However, simply through neglect of the relationship, the two countries risk increasingly parting tracks.
The Kingdom of Tonga is one of the smallest countries in the world, with a population of just over 100,000 scattered over 170 islands in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean. India, comparatively, is a superpower.
However, in the South Pacific, 13 similar small countries exist, each with a vote in international fora. Combined, these Pacific Island Countries (PICs) are often pivotal to decision making and reform in the international community.
There is a natural warmth between Tonga and India. In the 1970s, at the immediate expiration of the 1900 Protectorate Treaty with the UK, Tonga’s then monarch King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV and Queen Halaevalu Mata‘aho visited India. Twice.
In Delhi, their Majesties were inspired by India’s development model, and from Delhi, continued on to Moscow.
Not long after this key visit by their Majesties, the Soviet Union established its first mission in Nuku‘alofa. This spurred Australia to sponsor the establishment of the first Chinese missions in Suva and Apia.
In 1981, Congress strongwoman Indira Gandhi returned the favor and visited Nuku’alofa and their Majesties.
The current monarch, His Majesty Tupou VI, as Prime Minister and Crown Prince, visited India in 2003 under then BJP rule meeting the then Prime Minister Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
The previous monarch, George Tupou V visited India on several occasions, even on transit to landlocked Kingdoms of Bhutan and Nepal.
Now, with renewed vigor, India’s march to global power status has been affirmed under the election and leadership of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi.
It is time for a rejuvenation of relations, and a confirmation of dedication to democracy and common development and security. Additionally, the systems and people of India and Tonga are similarly imperilled by key issues to survival such as the emerging challenges of the 21st century and new non-traditional threats.
Prime Minister Modi’s upcoming tour of Fiji should include a stopover in Tonga.
This will have two critical messages.
First, in Tonga, increasingly (like most places), the Asian century is just becoming a China century. But the binary ‘billionaires’ of Asia, in any circumstance, cannot ignore India.
A stopover in Tonga will be a force multiplier for Indian diplomacy and soft power in the South Pacific: the planet’s greatest concentration of microstates. Tonga is at the heart of South Pacific diplomacy, and relations beyond the region.
Second, having transitioned from Monarchical rule to Monarchical reign, with a more democratically elected government, Tonga is still ahead in pioneering strategic relationships with the wider global community. Modi’s democratic mandate naturally complements this.
India has previously been praised in Nuku’alofa, for its action to desist acceleration of the $1 Trillion ‘Bali Package’ and the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement, citing food security concerns.
A renewed Indian engagement with the South Pacific is crucial for the balance of power, and maintaining stability. Although the South Pacific might seem at the fringes of Indian strategic purview, the mounting importance of the emerging Indo-Pacific, which puts the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific Ocean together as interlinked strategic regions critical for power projection, only serves to accentuate the criticality of this relationship.
The Mandala dynamic need not be allowed to perpetuate in terms of this critical neighbouring and inter-regional relationship, and leave the regions estranged.
Even more critical is the growing maritime nature of the Asian century. Old and new powers are looking again at command of the seas as a means of strategic power projection and security.
Currently, India’s relations with the South Pacific are largely ‘managed’ via Australia, and Fiji.
Australia, because it thinks it can impose ‘strategic denial’ against India in the region even though the region was nurtured and has always benefited from Indian efforts. Although the thawing of nuclear relations between India and Australia is a positive step, there cannot be certainty until India forges its own relations with the nations of the South Pacific. Increasingly, Australia’s security situation is being challenged by a range of factors, including its own endemic Islamic terrorism.
With Modi’s huge global popularity, a new relationship with the region is easily achieved.
Another major challenge is that India seems to rely on its Fijian diaspora to do its diplomacy in the region. However some might see this approach as a continuation of the colonial system. Additionally, Fiji’s political and military upheavals have mostly stemmed out of the racial divide between the indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians. When the supposed vanguard of interests itself becomes the source of greater problems, it is natural to look further afield for more effective outposts.
For the sake of a new Indo-Pacific economic and security architecture, there needs to be a breakthrough for Indian relations in the South Pacific.
It should be brought to new heights, and serve as a source of inspiration for the peoples of the two regions. The common interests of security and prosperity for the peoples of Tonga and India can serve as boosters in cooperation.
A short transit was done by the British Queen in the 1950s, Smt Indira Gandhi in the 1980s, and even the Speaker of the Israeli Knesset. A visit by the most popular Prime Minister in Indian post-independence history, would accomplish wonders for India-PIC relations, and show India is in the Pacific for more than just Fiji.
The two governments of the Republic of India and the Kingdom of Tonga should up the ante and make a stopover in Tonga, a reality.