Pacific Outreach

Pacific Outreach

Representation image (Photo:SNS)

As the world’s geopolitics take a sudden new turn and contending parties jostle for their space in this geostrategic contestation, the South Pacific islands north of Australia have assumed sudden importance.

For no fault of theirs, these island nations now find themselves as the fertile playground for a great power game and therefore face critical choices as strategic interests of big stakeholders come into play. Traditionally, the US and Australia remained their benefactors.

Now China has jumped into the fray to have its own footprint. India being a part of the Quad and finding common interests with countries sharing common values cannot be left behind. Against this short background, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Papua New Guinea (PNG) on the second leg of his 6- day, three-nation tour ~ Japan, Papua New Guinea and Australia ~ needs critical examination.


Modi was the first Indian Prime Minister to visit PNG. It soon transpired that this Pacific island nation attaches great importance to its relations with India. This was discernible from the way Modi was received and by the fact that PNG made an exception to give a ceremonial welcome after sunset, a practice it generally does not follow.

The kind of reverence with which Modi was received could be deciphered from the manner in which Prime Minister James Marape received him by touching his feet as a mark of respect the Indian leader landed at Port Moresby airport. This must have embarrassed Modi but he reciprocated Marape’s gesture by patting his back before giving him a warm hug.

This gesture by Marape attracted significant media attention. The purpose of Modi’s visit was to strengthen cooperation with the 14 Pacific island nations. Speaking at the Forum for IndiaPacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) summit in Port Moresby, Modi told the leaders that India would be a “reliable development partner”.

This was an oblique reference to China, which has been trying to expand its footprint in the South Pacific either by luring some island nations to switch allegiance from Taiwan to China and by signing security agreements, thereby taking the signatory countries into its own orbit.

Such a strategy by China has alarmed Australia and the US and both countries are working on counter strategies to check China’s advance into this region. Modi invoked the adage that ‘a friend in need is a friend indeed’, proving thereby that India stood with its Pacific island friends during the challenging times of the Covid-19 pandemic by providing vaccines and essential medicines, besides wheat, sugar and other materials within its capabilities.

PNG is important for India because of its strategic location. As stated, PNG and 13 other island nations are located north of Australia where China is trying to expand its influence and Australia and the US are seeking to counter it. China has used its strategy of making investments in infrastructure projects and schools with the objective of gaining military and diplomatic leverage in the island nations.

When in 2022 China signed a security pact with Solomon Islands, alarm bells were heard all over the region. The people of the Pacific island nations are quite sensitive about outside powers’ involvement in the region’s security matters and therefore fiercely oppose the militarisation of the Pacific.

As a peace-loving country committed to work to defuse tensions wherever those occur, India is also keen to boost ties with the Pacific island nations. The 14 island nations are PNG, Solomon Islands, Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, the Republic of Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

There is a sizable Indian diaspora in these island nations which India is keen to leverage. Prime Minister Modi had visited Fiji in 2014, when the FIPIC was launched.

This was in response to China’s planned efforts to enhance its military and diplomatic influence in the region. So, Modi’s visit to Fiji in 2014 and the present visit to PNG are in line with this objective to engage with Pacific island nations. The first FIPIC summit was held in Fiji in 2014, the second in Jaipur in 2015 and this was the third in PNG during Modi’s visit.

The issues discussed covered how to strengthen partnership across various sectors, including trade and investment, health, capacity building, skill development and information technology. For the record, PNG is the world’s third largest island nation, a lower middle-income country with a predominantly rural population.

Like India, it is linguistically diverse with more than 800 languages spoken. The population of 9,819,350 survives mainly on agriculture with little contact with the outside world. The people are sensitive to foreign presence because of the past experience of the nation. Since 1880, parts of the country were ruled by Germany, Australia and Britain.

In September 1975, the island nation got independence. PNG is a part of the Commonwealth and King Charles III is its official King, who is represented by the Governor General. Modi also met Governor General Bob Dadae and discussed ways to further strengthen the bilateral partnership across multiple sectors. PM Modi announced a 12- step action plan to propel India’s partnership with the Pacific island nations.

This included a 100-bed regional super specialty hospital in Fiji, setting up a regional IT and cyber security training hub in PNG, Sagar Amrut Scholarships ~ 100 scholarships in the next five years and a Jaipur foot camp in PNG in 2023. Other initiatives included the FIPIC SME development project, a solar project for government buildings, desalination units for drinking water, supplying sea ambulances, setting up a dialysis unit, emergency helpline number, setting up Jan Aushadi kendras and yoga centres.

Modi’s remark that the Pacific island nations are “large ocean countries and not small island states” must have pleased the 14 leaders present at the FIPIC. Thus it transpires that the centrality of the Pacific Islands are being tested by great power contestations with China on one side and the US, Australia and now India joining the fray on the other.

It is to be seen how this new geopolitical battleground in the Pacific with multiple players serves the interests of the “large ocean countries”.

(The writer was a Senior Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi)