India’s Island Outreach
The Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) is a regional forum established by the Indian government to enhance cooperation and strengthen relations between India and the Pacific Island countries. It was launched by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to Fiji in November 2014. Recently, PM Modi attended the 3rd summit of FIPIC in Port Moresby on May 21 after wrapping up his duties at the G7 meeting in Hiroshima, where India served as a guest country.
FIPIC serves as a platform for dialogue and collaboration on various issues of mutual interest, including sustainable development, climate change, maritime security, trade, investment, and cultural exchanges. The forum aims to deepen India’s engagement with the Pacific Island countries and contribute to their socio-economic development.
The inaugural FIPIC summit was held in Suva, Fiji, in 2014, and in August 2015, in Jaipur, where leaders from 14 Pacific Island countries participated. Since then, subsequent summits have not been organised due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
FIPIC aims to provide a valuable opportunity for Pacific Island countries to engage with India and leverage its expertise, resources, and technical assistance in areas such as renewable energy, healthcare, education, and capacity building. It also offers India a platform to enhance its presence and influence in the Pacific region, which can counter the influence of China and their debt trap policy.
Currently, there is a total of $300 million in yearly commerce between India and the Pacific Island nations, with $200 million in exports and $100 million in imports, and around $493 million in 2019–2020.
The forum operates through regular meetings, bilateral engagements, and collaborative initiatives. It emphasises people-to-people contacts, cultural exchanges, and the sharing of best practises—essentially, soft power. FIPIC has facilitated the exchange of high-level visits between India and the Pacific Island countries, promoting diplomatic ties and fostering a deeper understanding of each other’s priorities and challenges.
Engagements at Port Moresby
India’s involvement with the 14 Pacific Island Countries (PICs) is part of the Act East Policy of the Government of India.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday whipped at rich nations for their slow reaction to the COVID-19 outbreak as a global calamity, stressing that the pandemic has disproportionately affected countries in the Global South. PM Modi stated during the 3rd India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) Summit in Papua New Guinea that the impact of COVID-19 compounded existing difficulties in underdeveloped countries.
The difficulties brought on by the COVID-19 epidemic have worsened in the developing world. Prior to the pandemic, there were already difficulties linked to climate change, natural disasters, hunger, poverty, and health. Now, additional concerns are emerging. As stated by PM Modi, the COVID-19-induced shutdown caused supply lines to be interrupted. He also expressed regret that “those whom we trusted turned out at the time of need; they did not stand with us.”
In the words of Papua New Guinea’s PM James Marape, who was the co-chair, PICs suffered as a result of the major nations involved in the geopolitical conflict and power struggle. Moreover, PM Marape pleaded with India to represent the Global South in the G-7 and the G-20 since PICs are victims of international power struggles. He stated, “We want you to be an advocate for us and sit in those meetings.” The Pacific island states’ diminutive size shouldn’t obscure the reality that they occupy a sizable portion of the ocean, according to PM Marape.
Countering Chinese Influence
It is no secret that the Indo-Pacific region has witnessed increasing geopolitical competition between India and China. Both countries are seeking to expand their influence and engagement with countries in the region, including the Pacific Island nations. In this context, FIPIC can be seen as part of India’s broader engagement strategy to deepen its ties with the Pacific Island countries and enhance its presence in the region. Delhi is also seeking FIPIC as an extension of its Act East Policy.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has played a significant role in its economic engagement with the Pacific Island countries. Under the BRI, China has funded and supported various infrastructure projects in the region. China has invested heavily in the construction and upgrade of ports, such as the Port Vila Lapetasi International Multi-Purpose Wharf in Vanuatu and the Luganville Wharf in Vanuatu. These projects aim to enhance trade connectivity and promote Chinese maritime interests.
It has also been involved in telecommunications infrastructure development, including providing assistance for submarine cable systems in countries like Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and Vanuatu, which strengthen connectivity and communication networks.
Notably, China has established diplomatic relations with countries that have significant influence within regional organisations like the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) and the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG). But India is also trying to spread its influence in the region through diplomatic and economic ties.
During the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference in 2018, China committed to providing $4 billion in loans and assistance to the Pacific Island nations. However, Xi’s strategy backfired, as China and the Pacific Islands parted ways at the conclusion of the event.
While FIPIC itself may not have been established solely as a counterweight to China, it does provide a platform for India to strengthen its regional partnerships and offer an alternative avenue of cooperation through diplomatic and economic affairs for the Pacific Island countries. India has been actively engaging in high-level visits and diplomatic exchanges with the PICs and bringing them under the sphere of its soft power. These visits serve to strengthen political ties, explore areas of cooperation, and discuss regional and global issues of mutual concern. By engaging with these nations and providing assistance in areas such as development, infrastructure, and capacity building, India aims to bolster its relationships and build its own influence in the region while keeping the Dragon’s influence at bay.