In a move that is sure to make Beijing prick up its ears, India is currently hosting heads of 14 Pacific island nations at the second summit of the Forum for India Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will address on Friday. Denying that it is engaged in any kind of rivalry with China, India is nevertheless wooing a grouping of 14 small islands in the Pacific of which six have accorded recognition to Taiwan.
At the first FIPIC summit that was held in Fiji in 2014 and was attended by Narendra Modi, Chinese Premier Xi Jinping announced a package of economic assistance to the Pacific islands. He made it a point to assert that the six which had not been invited - Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, the Solomon Islands and Tuvalu would also be beneficiaries of the package. These six are among the 22 nations worldwide that have full diplomatic relations with Taiwan. The tiny but plucky islands have been the source of complex diplomatic intrigue between China and Taiwan for decades, with each accusing the other of using "dollar diplomacy" to win recognition.
China and Taiwan have been ruled separately since defeated nationalist forces fled to the island at the end of a civil war with the Communists in 1949. Although lately there have been moves of rapprochement, for most of the world community, reaching out to Taiwan means burning bridges with China. India only has relations with Taiwan at the level of a Trade Representation and Cultural centre.
Wariness at China's increasing presence in the Pacific Ocean has been voiced by other countries in the region. Indian officials say over the past few years, in speaking points during bilateral discussions, Australia and New Zealand have voiced their concerns over China's outreach in the region and have tried to draw New Delhi into some sort of alliance of the unwilling. Delhi's response has been bland. Much the same note was struck by the official spokesman, who briefed media ahead of the FIPC summit. When asked how India compared its involvement with Pacific Island countries in comparison to China's involvement, he answered: "I think we are not comparing ourselves with others."
But that said, India was quick to offer to host the second FIPIC summit and will likely step up trade and investment with a group of nations that are geographically remote (it takes 18 hours of air travel to reach Samoa, for instance) but strategically close. On both: the issue of climate change and the thorny reform of the UN Security Council, many of these 14 nations can be valuable allies in the future.
On climate change, India is pragmatic enough to understand that these nations would not like to roil the waters in their immediate neighbourhood and sing a tune different from Australia and New Zealand. For the islands, the stakes are high: for instance, the largest Samoan population living outside Samoa is based in New Zealand and geography has forced a commonality of approach. But India has reached out and engaged with these countries even if there is a difference in public articulation of views on climate change, especially mitigation and adaptation. The government of India spokesman said: "Our orientation is mainly towards capacity building, development and trade. Now, we are looking at newer areas. So, it takes time as we progress further in our relationship to build upon what we have. We started looking at these countries seriously because of the common strands, common problems that we face with regard to mitigation issues, etc., where they need our technology for taking care of the disasters that they face on a regular basis."
On UN reform, out of the 14, two, Cook Islands and Niue, don't have a vote in the United Nations. "But as far as the other 12 are concerned, we have firm stated commitment of support from at least 10 of them. And the eleventh one has also supported the G4 resolution, which indirectly supports the Indian position. One country has not yet pronounced itself either way, yes or no. So, we are not specifically looking for that sort of endorsement. But we know that when it comes to a crunch, then we will get support of all of them in the process because of the relationship that we have developed," the spokesman said.
To cement the relationship, India is likely to offer technology in sectors like fishing, mining, oil and natural gas, information technology, health, marine resources, agriculture, coconut, coir, etc.
"We have an annual trade of about $300 million between the Pacific Island countries and India at the moment. Our exports are around $200 million and imports are around $100 million. Of course, the largest country for bilateral trade in this regard is Papua New Guinea because of oil and gas, but Fiji is also an important country in that regard. As you know, the issue of connectivity with these countries is something which is first and foremost which has to be improved as far as trade and investment is concerned. But of course if there are companies from India which go and carry out projects in the project exports category, these can be done quite easily," the spokesman said.
He added: "The National Disaster Management Authority is going to talk to them about what they can do in terms of training programmes, mitigation programmes, which they undertake in India, and what we are doing ourselves internally to reduce the carbon footprint in India. In connection with that we are also going to talk about the issue of capacity building with solar energy. And that is going to save money in terms of the utilisation of kerosene for instance for lighting homes in many of these countries. So, there we are going to be helpful as far as these countries are concerned, and this is an offer from our side..."