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Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) Summit 2015

August 24, 2015

In November 19 last year, Narendra Modi’s day long stopover at Fiji while returning home from Australia after attending the G20 summit was not just the first ever visit to the tiny Asia-Pacific island nation by any Indian Prime Minister in 33 years, but had also preceded a three-day visit of the tiny island country by the Chinese President Xi Jingping.

FIPIC Summit 2015

Modi had then signed 15 bilateral agreements with Fiji on a wide range of subjects including trade, agriculture, health, sports. Significantly, he had then also attended a specially convened “mini-summit” meeting with the leaders of the Pacific Islands where he had touched upon the issue of climate change – an area of concern for the low lying South Pacific island nations, and talked of setting up a special adaptation fund of $1 million to provide assistance and training for capacity building to the Pacific Island nations.

The timing of Modi’s visit to Suva was significant considering that during eight years of military rule in Fiji, China had made  significant inroads in the oceanic region with large oil and gas reserves, vast fishing grounds, deep-sea mineral deposits, vital sea lines of communication and model vantage points for military power projection.

Given its strategic importance, the region was, therefore, on the radars of the USA and Japan, as well as the major players in the Asia Pacific region, Australia and New Zealand that had to rework their policies towards South Pacific Islands.

With democracy restored in Fiji, India’s entry meant greater regional balance and better opportunities for the region. It is significant that six of the 14 island nations of the region have accorded recognition to Taiwan.

It is against these backdrops that Modi’s visit to Fiji, his participation in the “mini-summit” and then hosting the second summit of the Forum for India-Pacific Island Cooperation (FIPIC) in Jaipur this month well within a year of his visit to Fiji, needs to be analysed.

Even as India denies that it is engaged in any kind of rivalry with China, the FIPIC nations are well aware of their geo-strategic significance for India because of China’s spread in the maritime zones of Asia-Pacific. At the Jaipur summit, the Indian Prime Minister did talk about Indian Navy’s support and capacity building efforts in island states in Indian Ocean while pitching for goodwill visits by Indian Navy to Pacific Islands to provide support in areas like healthcare through medical camps.

Also given the region’s strategic location that was crucial for monitoring India’s space programmes, India also proposed during the Summit, how it can assist in establishing a ‘Space Technology Applications Centre’ in any one of the Pacific Island Countries for the entire region and enhance support for training in space applications, including through customised courses.  (Fiji had hosted Indian scientists for tracking the Mars Mission, Mangalyaan. Acknowledging the support, Modi had not just thanked Fiji for the support, but in his special “mini-summit’ meeting with the leaders of the Pacific Islands, had even offered cooperation in use of space technology applications with them). In Jaipur, Modi hoped to continue receiving support from Pacific Islands for Telemetry, Tracking and Command for our missions in the future.

With focus on ocean economy, India recognises the potential of the region in providing clean energy, new medicines and food security beyond fisheries.  Modi acknowledged this fact at the Jaipur summit: “…the world may see you as Small Islands with modest populations. I see you as Large Ocean States with vast potential.”

India at the summit has offered to establish an Institute for Sustainable Coastal and Ocean Research in the region and a network of marine biology research stations in various island nations.

In the Jaipur summit, heads of state and senior officials of fourteen island countries – Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Cook Islands, Kiribati, Tonga, Tuvalu, Nauru,  Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Samoa, Niue, Palau, Micronesia,  and Marshall Islands – participated. Significantly this was the first regional summit that the Modi government was hosting in India after taking charge in May last year – “… the centre of gravity of global opportunities and challenges are shifting to the Pacific and Indian Ocean Region.”

This not just demonstrates India’s determination for a much greater strategic engagement with the region, but also shows the eagerness of these countries to be involved with India. It has some historic context too, as India has old, cultural ties with these nations, and has a significant percentage of population that is of Indian descent, in the region.

The objective of Jaipur summit was to strengthen trade and bilateral relations between India and the Pacific countries and the pragmatic approach of doing business with these tiny nations is well appreciated. India is keen to help harness mineral, marine and hydrocarbon resources in the region and seeks deeper cooperation in sectors such as oil and natural gas, mining, IT, health care, fishing and marine research.

Besides, it also needs the support of these nations for India’s permanent membership of the Security Council.  (It may be mentioned that of the 14 Pacific Island nations, 12 have a vote in the United Nations and only two nations left out are Cook Islands and Niue). While hosting the leaders in New Delhi on the eve of the Summit, President Pranab Mukherjee pointed out that the UNSC reform and expansion was to be discussed and concrete proposals were expected to be considered in the forthcoming UNGA session next month. “An inter-governmental negotiating text is already on the table, for which India needs their support,” he had said.

Yet, it is time for quid pro quo and India well understands this as Modi shared the concerns of these tiny nations over climate change and natural disasters. He had referred to them while in Suva and in Jaipur again he offered to create capacity in these Island states in dealing with natural disasters through human resource development and application of space technology for early warning system and incident response –“Climate change is an existential threat to the Pacific Islands. It is also taking a toll on the teaming millions on India’s shoreline of 7500 kilometres and its nearly 1300 islands. We both seek a concrete and effective outcome on climate change at COP 21 in Paris later this year.”

Besides, India announced a slew of other support measures such as providing:

a)  110 slots for the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation for Fiji and doubling the number of slots for remaining 13 countries from 119 to 238

b)  Two scholarships for college education in India to each of the 13 countries that do not receive them yet, while continuing with the 33 scholarships presently offered to Fiji.

c)  Training courses for Pacific Island diplomats and a two-week business management course at the Indian Institute of Management in Bengaluru

d)  Training to 70 women solar engineers from the islands

e)  Solar electrification to 2,800 houses – 200 houses in each Pacific Island Country

f)   At least one information technology laboratory in each Pacific Island country to improve local IT infrastructure, and telemedicine and teleeducation to the people.

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