By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
Colombo, May 29: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to the Pacific island Papua New Guinea grabbed global media attention when its Prime Minister James Marape bent to touch Modi’s feet in an unusual expression of reverence. Marape’s gesture, which won the hearts of Indians, signifies India’s growing clout among the Pacific Island Countries (PICs).
India’s entry into this region is undoubtedly driven by the growing Chinese clout there and the West’s anxieties in that regard. But New Delhi’s interests are more economic than security-related. It is eyeing the resource-rich area, and to secure them, it is assiduously wooing the PICs with economic, technical and educational aid.
According to www.theconversation.com an estimated 8.9 billion tons of nodules lie strewn around the Pacific Ocean floor. These deposits are worth an estimated Australian dollars 14.4 trillion. These nodules are so rich in four essential metals needed for batteries (cobalt, nickel, copper, and manganese) that they are often called “a battery in a rock”.
In Papua New Guinea and Fiji, there are vast undeveloped copper reserves. Building low-carbon energy systems to power a low-carbon economy will require vast amounts of minerals and metals for new technologies and energy infrastructure, the conversation.com website says.
Further, Papua New Guinea is considering enormous new gold and copper mines. The Cook Islands granted three licenses to explore for poly-metallic nodules in the seas to which they have exclusive economic rights.
In 2014, Prime Minister Modi established the “Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation” (FIPIC). It includes India, Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Niue, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. In November 2014 the FIPIC held its first summit that was followed by more.
India already has a foothold in Fiji, in which people of Indian origin are 40% of the population. Not so long ago, it’s Prime Minister was an ethnic Indian Mahendra Chaudhary.
Since 2015, India has been engaged in creating technical capacity in the PICs in the fields of natural disasters, solar energy, electrification, housing, Information Technology, telemedicine and tele-education. India also announced the opening of a space research and satellite monitoring station on the Fiji Islands which will provide it with an independent satellite tracking capacity. India will assist the establishment of a Space Technology Applications Centre in one of the PICs.
In September 2019, Modi announced a US$12 million grant (US$ 1 million to each PIC) for the implementation of high-impact developmental projects in the area of their choice. This is in addition to a concessional Line of Credit of US$150 million for solar, renewable energy, and climate-related projects based on the PIC’s requirements.
Modi has emphasized that “development policies need to be inclusive and sustainable to reduce inequality and contribute to the empowerment of people,” thus contrasting Indian aid with Chinese aid.
The Indian PM announced a Special Adaptation Fund of US$ 1 million to provide technical assistance and training for capacity building. To enhance connectivity, a Pan Pacific Islands Project for E-network was announced. India also announced a grant-in-aid of US$ 200,000 annually for each PIC.
To augment trade relations, a Trade Office at the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) in Delhi was announced. Indian visa-on-arrival was announced to promote greater people-to-people contacts.
Since generic drugs are very expensive in the PICs because they are routed through third countries, India has offered to set up a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant and distribution centers in the region with a Line of Credit.
While supporting the development of micro, small, and medium enterprises, India extended support for the purchase of machinery for coconut processing and increasing productivity of rice and sugarcane. India also wants to improve market access for the products of these countries.
Importantly, India will push for greater cooperation with the PICs in sectors like oil and natural gas, mining, IT, healthcare, fishing and marine research and other areas. India aims to play a major role in tackling problems created by climate change, a particular area of concern in the PICs.
An ‘India-Pacific Islands Sustainable Development Conference’, was also organized in Suva, Fiji from 25-26 May 2017. The conference focused on discussing the issues including the blue economy, adaptation-mitigation practices for climate change, disaster preparedness, and health.
In September 2017, India launched Climate Early Warning Systems in seven PICs. India has regularly provided assistance in these counties to deal with the consequences of frequent cyclones. A relief and rehabilitation grant was provided when tropical cyclone Hola hit Vanuatu in 2018.
Since the Pacific Ocean is important for international trade and India is part of the Indo-Pacific security architecture ‘Quad’ along with Japan, the US, and Australia, there is an awareness of China’s growing clout in the PICs.
In 2022, the Solomon Islands signed a security pact with China, sparking international concern over the possibility of Beijing building its first military base in the region ‘The Guardian reported. In response, the US ramped up its Pacific diplomacy, hosting a landmark Pacific leaders’ summit and whirlwind tours by senior officials, including Vice-President Kamala Harris, and pledged more aid.
In February the US reopened an embassy in the Solomon Islands after a 30-year hiatus. Australia has also become active overtaking China as the “leading source of bilateral loans to the Pacific,” in 2022.
However, writing for the Lowy Institute, Denghua Zhang says that China is still a principal donor for the PICs. It is also strengthening its military heft in the region. Chinese state-owned enterprises delivered relief supplies to Tonga in the wake of a volcanic eruption and tsunami disaster that hit the country in January 2022.
Chinese aid pledges to the Solomon Islands are even more prominent. In addition to the US$ 53 million national sports stadium, China-funded projects in progress include the National University dormitory complex (US$ 21.4 million), a comprehensive medical center at the National Referral Hospital, and 161 mobile phone towers (US$66 million).
Beijing has funded more than 100 aid projects in the region, donated more than 200 batches of in-kind support, and trained about 10,000 local professionals since the 1970s.
The 2022 Lowy Institute Pacific Aid Map provides details about Chinese aid in the region. China provided a total of nearly US$ 3.148 billion to the Pacific between 2008 and 2020.
However, the Lowy Institute says that there has been a decline in Chinese aid, in part due to China’s slowing economy and tensions with the West. The PICs also have developed doubts about Chinese aid, it adds.
“Recent research finds that Pacific scholars, university students, and non-government organizations have concerns about the debt risks, environmental impact and inadequate local benefits of Chinese aid projects. The majority of surveyed university students in Papua New Guinea and Fiji would oppose more Chinese aid to their countries if they became leaders in the future.”
But this impression is being corrected by China, Lowy adds. Beijing has said that it will deepen cooperation with the PICs via six new platforms: agriculture, climate action, poverty reduction, disaster preparedness, and emergency supplies.
China is also making efforts to tackle the aid transparency issue. In January 2022, the China International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA) organized online training for Chinese companies and social organizations on the use of an aid reporting portal.
Under its proposed “China-Pacific Island Countries Common Development Vision” and “Five-Year Action Plan (2022–26)” China has envisaged doubling the volume of bilateral trade between China and its economic partners, which could potentially circumvent other regional initiatives such as that put forward by the United States Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity.
China also seeks to widen its engagement with the Pacific region, via the China-Pacific Island Countries Ministerial Dialogue on Law Enforcement Capacity and Police Cooperation.