The FIPIC summit between India and the Pacific Islands, the second forum and the first on Indian soil, can been deemed a success and a game-changer for the new ‘Indo-Pacific’ century.
It is true, that in abiding by the great and wise Kautilyan premise of Mandala, the engagement with the Pacific is a reach beyond bordering regions, where colliding interests rarely find space to warp opportunities.
In Prime Minister Modi’s closing statements of the summit, he had no reservations but went straight to the heart of international relationships: security, and strategic interests.
Driven by shared challenges and converging interests hinging on the Indian and Pacific Ocean maritime linkages, the countries wrapped up the inaugural India summit with minimal fanfare, but great aspirations and wonderful ambitions.
For India, an equitable global security architecture and a permanent seat at the United Nations’ Security Council (where he offered India’s commitment for a Pacific stake for both categories in the same). For the Pacific, the ‘existential threat’ of climate change and a shared challenge for the millions on India’s littorals.
On the strategic front, the summit also took a new hue of its own compared to previous summits where development aid is doled out, and checkbook diplomacy is the ritual that defines negotiations.
It has even attempted to review the ‘aid paradigm’, where geographically small, isolated island states are deemed as sink-holes of development funds, with insignificant strategic values (except casting favorable votes in whichever international fora it may be needed). Rather, that trade, cooperation, and exchange, allows development to grow faster and more sustainably.
Development of course remains a major challenge to both India and the Pacific. Development assistance, to both sides, was identified and India showed its prowess and capabilities, and a willingness to share experiences and resources, by announcing millions in development assistance to the islands.
Technical and technological transfer has always been at the heart of the development puzzle for the islands. And things will change. The commitment for technical training and education of Pacific peoples in India is an important thread of cooperation and will fast-track and secure long-term benefits. Especially in the areas of IT, and medicine and pharmaceuticals.
But here, there has been serious political commitment to encouraging socio-economic exchange. If, as Kautilya is purported to state, that “in the people lay the strength of the King”, then socio-cultural exchange is one edge of this blade, forged with political commitment and purpose. And if “from the strength of the treasury, the army is born”, then together they form an unassailable approach for resilient, mutual development, and to attend to strategic challenges lying ahead.
There are a plethora of experiences that the two sides can learn and share in terms of culture, traditions, and institutions. Modi announced that India’s national broadcaster, Prasar Bharti, stands ready to provide TV and Radio programs on culture, entertainment, news, and education to the peoples of the Pacific Islands. The islands have a rich maritime civilization to share with India.
There are also myriad of opportunities for trade and investment. India has refined skills in trade and millions worth of resources to trade with the Pacific. There are multitudes of opportunities and industries for Indian investment in the region, and the vast under-utilized marine resources of the region are ripe for development (natural gas, fisheries, agricultural resources, rare earths and seabed mining, space monitoring stations, etc.). A FIPIC trade office will be established in Delhi to fulfill exactly this. In return, India should look at expanding its diplomatic representation to a more equitable status, and not hang it on the four missions in the region stationed in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and Australia. This would make bilateral and clear communication possible.
All stand to benefit from deeper and broader engagement.
And so, trade follows the flag, and vice versa. Indian military and navy will schedule to perform a true, blue navy character when deployed to engage with the islands in the region, whether in disaster relief/humanitarian exercises or joint exercises, there are only positive outcomes. In turn, a more secure and visibly present India makes economies in the region comfortable for Indian investment.
India has a lot to share with the Pacific in terms of the sub-continent’s institutional reforms and civilisational survival. The same is from the Pacific, in terms of managing scarcity in challenging, isolated, maritime and island systems. A major challenge faced by the Pacific islands is that the predominant narrative of ‘modern development’ is the abolition of their own indigenous institution and the adoption of West-centric ones. Here, there is a chance to enhance the organic institutions that brought the civilisations of the region into the modern age.
There exists all the right reasons and resources for complementarity. Prime Minister Modi has even extended pairing India’s space experiences and capabilities, with the Pacific’s vast maritime consciousness.
These exchanges are critical to the emerging Indo-Pacific era, characterized by intense competition for resources and markets, but pivoted upon lines of communication that both India and the Pacific, excessively preside over. The fate of this era just might hinge upon the strength of Indian-Pacific engagement.
The South China Sea and the corridors of South East Asia are intrinsically critical to the interests of South Asia and the South Pacific. As they become more contested, the ‘flanks’ become even more strategic.
Now the tone of the future has been realised, Indian commitment stamped, and Pacific leaders return charmed and energised.
The next year is full of optimism for frank, equal, partnership that will raise security not just of Indian and Pacific interests, but even in the interests of the region and globally for security and growth, in an increasingly geostrategic Indopacific.