The 21st century is spoken of as the century of the seas. Globalization of trade and commerce and the increasing liberalisation and interlinking of economies towards the end of the last century and the fact that bulk of trade takes place via maritime routes, has raised the relevance of maritime domain. Dwindling resources on land is also compelling a relook at the oceans with their seemingly large untapped resources. The expanding globalisation of trade and commerce coupled with growth of Asian economies, have increased shipping between Indian and Pacific oceans.
In the maritime arena, control over critically-located islands has always been important. Throughout history, nations have tried to control strategic islands to project power across their areas of interest. Islands help in creating bases well away from the mainland of a nation for replenishment of supplies, positioning of troops and for maintenance of ships. Such bases also emerge as the key to safeguarding sea lanes of communications (SLOC).
The 21st century is spoken of as the century of the seas. Globalization of trade and commerce and the increasing liberalisation and interlinking of economies towards the end of the last century and the fact that bulk of trade takes place via maritime routes, has raised the relevance of maritime domain. Dwindling resources on land is also compelling a relook at the oceans with their seemingly large untapped resources. The expanding globalisation of trade and commerce coupled with growth of Asian economies, have increased shipping between Indian and Pacific oceans. The emergence of Indo-Pacific construct has realigned relationships and strategic engagements between nations in the region, as well as extra regional nations with economic or strategic interests in the region, essentially for an open and inclusive Indo- Pacific to ensure good order at sea and freedom of navigation to all nations. This has brought into focus the strategic importance of Island Nations and islands as such, across the Indo-Pacific.
The strategic importance of Islands/Island nations in the Indian Ocean such as Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles, La Réunion, Socotra, Diego Garcia, Madagascar, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Cocos Islands are often discussed. However, the Pacific Island Countries (PIC), a group of fourteen island nations in the South Pacific Ocean which had received relatively low attention so far, is now in focus due to China’s rising interests in the region. In mid-2022, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi undertook a ten-day tour of eight of these countries to promote economic and security cooperation which will enhance China’s role and strategic presence in South Pacific. This in turn resulted in renewed interests of other major maritime nations with interests in Indo-Pacific on these island nations calling for an overview of the subject.
China over the years has been systematically enhancing her reach through island territories in the East and South China Seas by ‘Salami slicing’ or gradually bringing small changes or making incremental gains…
Strategic Value of Islands
Strategically, over the years, islands have played important roles such as providing warning and surveillance posts and logistic bases for operations deep into the oceans. Today, they also provide countries with baselines to measure jurisdictional waters. Since the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) came into force, national governments have been able to establish Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), extending beyond their territorial waters, within which they retain certain sovereign and jurisdictional rights. EEZ can extend up to 200 nautical miles from the baseline, making it an important body of water for the exploitation of maritime resources as well as for military strategies. Countries therefore have begun to attach geographical and economic importance to even remote islands which were ignored earlier, as they provide bases for extended territorial claims over land, sea and airspace; sovereign rights to marine resources in the EEZ and continental shelf; and as nurturing grounds for the culture and lifestyles of residents. This has resulted in some nations creating artificial islands and expanding area of some artificially.
With focus shifting to the maritime arena in this century, the strategic significance of islands has increased manifold. It would be apparent as to why major powers and more so those wanting to gain a foothold beyond their own region are looking to Island nations. From the viewpoint of military strategy, islands apart from the roles mentioned earlier such as surveillance posts and logistic bases can also provide fortifications to prevent intrusions into mainland by hostile ships. In littoral military operations, the EEZ stretching from the shore, can be an important area for a defence-in-depth strategy, as seen from the continent and power projection, as seen from the sea. It is also pertinent that military operations within the EEZ are interpreted quite differently from country to country. While United States, claims that military ships may freely navigate, explore or carry out exercises in EEZ of other nations, Brazil has banned foreign navies from conducting exercises in their EEZ. Legal interpretations of naval operations within an EEZ can have great bearing on national security policy, so remote islands that serve as bases for EEZ claims have gained new importance from the vantage point of maritime operations.
Strategic importance of islands increase based on their geographic location along key SLOCs. Such islands enable regular presence of maritime forces be it Navy or Coast Guard along the SLOCto safeguard international shipping routes during peace time and for interdiction of enemy’s maritime forces during times of conflict. Island territories apart from facilitating a greater maritime presence, also help in enhancing maritime domain awareness (MDA). Needless to add, presence of maritime forces allows a nation to project its power. So, island territories today have a major influence when preparing national security strategies.
China’s Outreach into Islands
China over the years has been systematically enhancing her reach through island territories in the East and South China Seas by ‘Salami slicing’ or gradually bringing small changes or making incremental gains, each of which by itself may not raise any alarms, but can bring about major strategic changes in the long run. In the East China Sea, the dispute over Senkaku islands is well known. Regular flare ups have been taking place between Japan and China. Apart from exploitation of natural resources, strategically China is hoping that the control over the islands would enable it to gain uncontrolled access to the Pacific between the main Japanese Islands chain and Taiwan. China’s claims in South China sea, covers nearly 2 million square kilometres or the entire sea and features Paracel Islands, Scarborough Reef and Spratly Islands. Rival claims over these islands have been put in by Vietnam, Taiwan Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. In 1974, China occupied Woody Island in the Paracel group and in 1995 occupied Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands. China has over a period, tried to expand its claims over the South China Sea by reclaiming land physically to increase the size of islands or creating new islands altogether and by filling existing reefs. China has set up major infrastructure including airstrips in the islands. While China’s sweeping claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea, was rejected by an Arbitration Tribunal under UNCLOS in 2016, it has taken the stance that UNCLOS does not apply as these are territorial disputes to be settled bilaterally.
Japan and the Pacific Island Countries have deep historical ties and Japan had been granted the mandate to govern some islands by the League of Nations, where many Japanese descendants are still living.
Unlike China’s expansion into the Indian Ocean region, its growing presence among the Pacific Island Countries cannot be explained merely as a necessity to protect her trading interests along SLOCs in the region. Interests of China in the Pacific islands are more geo-economic, fisheries and mineral and energy resources. While China has territorial disputes in with Island nations South and East China seas, it does not have any territorial disputes with island nations in the Pacific. China has been extending considerable economic assistance to these nations. While some analysts view debt financing by China as harmful to these nations in the long run, as it could enable a stranglehold on them, most island nations are looking at short term gains. Many of them are also looking to having multiple partners and organisations like UNO, for conflict resolution and protection their interests globally. China’s long-term strategic ambitions in the region also have a military element as Chinese Defence Minister while speaking to a gathering of Pacific and Caribbean leaders, mentioned of the Belt and Road Initiative providing a framework for military cooperation.
US and Pacific Islands
Island nations of the Pacific play a critical role in the US strategic vision as evident from the Indo-Pacific strategy of United States that emanated from White House in Feb 2022. It has prioritized a broader and deeper engagement with the Pacific Islands. It states that “Building shared capacity requires the United States to make new regional investments… We will open new embassies and consulates, particularly in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, and increase our strength in existing ones, intensifying our climate, health, security and development work. We will expand US Coast Guard presence and cooperation in Southeast and South Asia and the Pacific Islands, with a focus on advising, training, deployment, and capacity-building. We will refocus security assistance on the Indo-Pacific, including to build maritime capacity and maritime-domain awareness.” It goes on to say that “The United States will work with partners to establish a multilateral strategic grouping that supports Pacific Island countries as they build their capacity and resilience as secure, independent actors. Together, we will build climate resilience through the Pacific Region Infrastructure Facility; coordinate to meet the Pacific’s infrastructure gaps, especially on information and communications technology; facilitate transportation; and cooperate to improve maritime security to safeguard fisheries, build maritime-domain awareness, and improve training and advising. We will also prioritize finalization of the Compact of Free Association agreements with the Freely Associated States.”Recently, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Tonga to balance Chinese influence. He specifically expressed concerns of Chinese activities in the area including predatory economic activities and unlawful maritime claims.
France and Pacific Islands
France has major interests and presence in islands in Indo-Pacific and considers itself an Indo-Pacific resident power due to her overseas territories in the region. She has 11 million sq km EEZ, of which about 93 percent is in the Indo-Pacific (80 percent in the South-Pacific and 13 percent in the Indian Ocean). In the South Pacific, French territories are in Melanesia (New Caledonia) and Polynesia (French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna). New Caledonia is the core of the French presence in the region. It has a listening station and its mining potential is vital for the French and European economies. French Polynesia is where France conducted nuclear tests on the Mururoa atoll from 1962 to 1996. French President Emmanuel Macron was recently in New Caledonia for a five-day Pacific tour to assert strategy of France as an alternative in a region marked by rivalry between China and America. His visit to New Caledonia is a first since the islands rejected independence in a controversial referendum in 2021. His tour also covered Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu, where the last visit by a French President was by Charles de Gaulle in 1966. These visits are essentially to strengthen France’s foothold in the region.
India in collaboration with like minded nations should also work to counter Chinese influence in the region in keeping with the concept of free and open Indo-Pacific.
Australia and Pacific Islands
Australia supports Pacific-led regional organisations, particularly the Pacific Islands Forum, through which it looks to address shared challenges. Australia also supports key Pacific regional organisations to provide critical policy and technical services to members in multiple areas including health, education, fisheries and climate change. Australia is also committed to supporting Pacific Island countries to build capacity to address security challenges. Australia’s long-standing and ongoing security cooperation with Pacific countries covers defence, law enforcement, transnational crime, climate and disaster resilience, border management and human security. Indications that China might be seeking a military base in Vanuatu and proposed Chinese-sponsored undersea cable networks in Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands has raised concerns of security in Australia.
Japan and Pacific Islands
Japan and the Pacific Island Countries have deep historical ties and Japan had been granted the mandate to govern some islands by the League of Nations, where many Japanese descendants are still living. There is also an emotional linkage as several Japanese soldiers had laid down their lives in these islands during World War II. Economic linkages with the islands include fishing by Japanese vessels in the region and timber imports from Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands. The stability of the region and friendly relations with countries are vital for Japan as it is the route for transportation of products and natural resources to and from Japan to Australia and New Zealand. Japan is engaging Pacific Island countries through infrastructure projects and multilateral forums to mitigate China’s Pacific presence. Given the strategic importance of Pacific Island countries Japan is planning to host the 10th Pacific Islands Leaders Meeting in 2024.
European Union and UK
The officially stated view of the European Union (EU) is to work closely with the Pacific Island Countries to develop environmental and climate resilience, promote sustainable management of Pacific’s rich natural resources and support economic growth. EU is committed to strengthening its relationship in the area based on common interests, upholding multilateralism and defending the rules-based global order. Agenda for cooperation covers climate change, environment protection, ocean governance, maritime security, connectivity, human rights, peace and security. The EU is also committed to strengthening connectivity across the Pacific region, ensuring that it is environmentally and fiscally sustainable, comprehensive, with focus on resilient transport links, digital networks and people-to-people contacts.
UK has renewed its agreement to continue partnership with Pacific Island Countries through the UK-Pacific Extended Continental Shelf Project to secure maritime zones and is committed to contribute additional funding for the project and supports a free and open Pacific. UK’s Foreign Secretary, visited the Commonwealth nations of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Samoa earlier this year and announced renewal of partnerships with Pacific nations, including millions in new funding to boost the region’s prosperity.
India in collaboration with like minded nations should also work to counter Chinese influence in the region in keeping with the concept of free and open Indo-Pacific.
Indian Interests in Pacific Islands
Indian linkages with Pacific Island nations dated back to the 19th century colonial era, when Indian workers were taken to the region as indentured plantation labourers. Many of them settled there. While India had initiated engagement with Pacific Island nations in early 1970s, it received a fillip when as a part of Act East policy to promote economic, strategic and cultural relations with the vast Asia-Pacific region at different levels, India established the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC).Inaugural meeting of FIPIC was held in Fiji in 2014. The second meeting was in 2015 in India, where the focus was on promoting the development and well-being of the people. Over the years, India has announced enhanced grants to the Pacific Island nations and concessional line of credits for undertaking solar, renewable energy and climate related projects and an annual grant in aid of US$200,000. India has also extended support to the PICs in the Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) sectors, sent technical experts in the fields of agriculture, healthcare and IT. India has also provided HADR (humanitarian assistance and disaster relief) post cyclones in the region, educational scholarships and civilian and military training courses.
The third FIPIC summit was held in Papua New Guinea in May 2023, wherein PM Narendra Modi had talks with leaders from the Pacific Island nations. His visit to Papua New Guinea and welcome extended by Prime Minister James Marape was extremely warm and respectful and indicative of the prospect of intensifying relations between the two nations. During the visit, India launched a comprehensive initiative aimed at improving India’s collaboration with the countries in the Pacific region. The strengthening of ties between India and all fourteen island nations has great potential for Indian exports and for access to the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of the Pacific Islands. It is also in keeping with India’s policy on fostering relationships through developmental aid and enhancing South-South cooperation. Linkages with PICs is also important for India due to their location at the crossroads of maritime trade routes as it would be an enabler in keeping Indo-Pacific free and open as envisaged by India.
The concept of Indo-Pacific and its emergence as the theatre for economic and strategic competition in the 21st century has brought back the focus on maritime domain. The importance of islands in maritime strategy has long been known, as possession or control of critically located islands have impacted maritime domination. Island territories apart from facilitating a greater maritime presence, also help in enhancing MDA. While Pacific Island nations have not received due attention earlier, unlike islands in the Indian Ocean Region, their strategic location and possession of extremely large exclusive economic zones, enhancing potential for maritime resource exploitation has brought focus on these islands. The competition for resources in the EEZs of Pacific Islands is only going to increase over time. This in turn calls for deeper understanding of the security concerns in the region and inclusion of Pacific Island nations in any strategy aimed towards enabling a free open and secure Indo-Pacific region. China’s outreach into the area has become a game changer. The region is becoming an increasingly contested strategic space and a likely battleground for influence among major powers. It is also for consideration that competition between major powers for expanding their strategic influence, give the island states bargaining power to play one power against another to maximize their gains.
As far as India is concerned, FIPIC forum should be utilised to enhance security and development in the region through partnerships with island nations. In turn,apart from economic benefits it would also help enhance India’s presence in global arena. India in collaboration with like minded nations should also work to counter Chinese influence in the region in keeping with the concept of free and open Indo-Pacific.