05/26/2023, 20.41
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India, a safe power for the Pacific region

by Alessandra De Poli

Like with Ukraine, India is taking the middle road in the Pacific region, between the US and China. For Papua New Guinea Prime Minister, James Marape, India is a “leader of the Global South". On the plus side, India can provide affordable technology and rely on local Indian communities, but militarily, the West remains dominant.

Delhi (AsiaNews) – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been quite busy in the last two weeks, in Japan for the G7 summit, followed by the meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad).

This week, Mr. Modi and his Australian counterpart, Anthony Albanese, signed a series of agreements in Australia, while back home, in the disputed region of Kashmir, India hosted a G20 summit on tourism.

The Indian leader also travelled to Papua New Guinea (PNG), the first by an Indian prime minister, for the Forum for India-Pacific Islands cooperation(FIPIC). US President Joe Biden was supposed attend but flew home instead to deal with the debt limit crisis. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stood in his place at the helm of the US delegation present at the forum.

All this suggests that the Pacific region has become a major theatre to measure the US-China rivalry.

For India, the meeting in Papua New Guinea with the region’s 14 countries is part of a slow rapprochement that began in 2014. “

“Those places are very strategic if you want to make a naval base or a friendly port or friendly airstrip and they also have vast ocean resources,” said Admiral Arun Prakash, retired Indian navy chief.

India can also help Papua New Guinea and the United States find common ground, especially after the Solomon Islands signed a military agreement with China that set off alarm bells in the West.

PNG Prime Minister James Marape welcomed his Indian counterpart as the "leader of the Global South", describing India as the "third big voice" in global politics which "must emerge." For Marape, the Pacific will "rally behind" India

While India is staking out a middle ground in the Ukraine War, its position is closer to that of non-Western countries, willing to provide economic support against climate change, which is the top concern for Pacific countries that risk being swallowed up by rising sea levels.

“One of the important challenges that Papua New Guinea faces is climate change and adaptation. These are areas where India can play an important role by offering affordable partnerships in areas like solar energy,” said Swati Prabhu, an associate fellow at the Centre for New Economic Diplomacy in New Delhi.

Mr Modi agrees. ”We are willing to share our capabilities and experiences in digital technology, space technology, health security, food security, climate change and environment protection," he said.

For its part, the United States signed a US$ 45 million deal with Papua New Guinea to boost economic and security cooperation.

The two countries also inked a separate agreement on increasing surveillance of PNG's exclusive economic zone through US Coast Guard patrols, so as to protect it from illegal fishing.

After university students protested against the defence agreement, Marape said that, "there is nothing for us to be fearful about" since the deal "has nothing to do with China”, which remains “an important trading partner”.

Given this background, India appears as a safe power in the region, where it can count on an important migrant presence. Some 3,000 Indian nationals live in Papua New Guinea, a country of 9.5 million people, while Fiji is home to a large community of Indian origin, 38 per cent of the population, who arrived at the time of British colonial rule.

According to India’s Ministry of External Affairs, 320,00o Indians live in the country, a bridgehead used in the past to promote trade and who can play the same role in the future.

The territory covered by the countries of the Pacific region spans 40 million square kilometres with the economic zones of some countries larger than India’s.

India's influence in the Pacific is limited though. New Delhi currently does not have the military capabilities of Western countries and cannot match Beijing’s reach.

“If you call yourself an Indo-Pacific power and are part of the Quad grouping, you must make some outreach to the Pacific also,” Admiral Prakash said.

“But whether it is within our capabilities to sustain ourselves that far out in the Pacific is a question mark. We don’t have such deep pockets and our navy is also relatively small”. Yet, “perhaps in coordination with Japan, Australia and [the] United States, we can render assistance”.


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