Nine months after the first Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation in Fiji, India hosted leaders from 14 Pacific island countries last week. India’s relationship with them is usually cast in terms of their natural resources, strategic location and countering China’s growing influence in the region. But the Pacific is a lot more than mineral resources or strategic locations, and China merely one of several players competing for influence there. As it steps up its engagement, India would do well to remember the complexity and diversity of the Pacific, and learn from the experience of other major countries that have done business with it.
While Australia has for long been the largest donor to the region, other major powers have recently expanded their presence. In 2012, then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) leaders’ meeting and asked them to “not count the US out”. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi was meeting the leaders in Jaipur last week, the US held talks with Pacific officials to explore the contours of a trade agreement. Immediately after Modi’s visit last year, Fiji hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping with equal, if not greater, enthusiasm.
Though often grouped together, the Pacific countries belong to three ethnically distinct subregions: Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia. Micronesia, spanning the north Pacific, consists of Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), the Marshall Islands, Kiribati and Nauru. After World War II, Palau, the FSM and the Marshall Islands became US territories, and even today, the US exerts a lot of influence on their economy and foreign policy. Polynesia includes the independent countries of Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu, and New Zealand associates Niue and the Cook Islands. Having been its colonies, these countries are closer to New Zealand and depend on liberal access to its labour market. Melanesia — covering Fiji, Papua New Guinea (PNG), the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu — has made more progress than others in subregional cooperation, through the Melanesian Spearhead Group.
With this diversity, it is not surprising that efforts to promote regional cooperation have rarely borne fruit. Even at the UN, these countries seldom vote together. The PIF, established in 1971 to promote regional cooperation, has a sprawling bureaucracy that manages everything from regional ICT to trade negotiations and donor coordination. Largely financed by Australia and New Zealand, it has sometimes been accused of promoting their agenda.
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Headquartered in Fiji, its relationship with the host country has been complicated. Fiji has often used its status as the “hub of the Pacific” to shape the regional agenda. Some members, particularly Samoa, have resisted these efforts.
Following its last coup, Fiji was suspended from the PIF in 2009. Fiji’s leader, Frank Bainimarama, responded by questioning the PIF’s legitimacy, and in 2013 launched the alternative Pacific Island Development Forum. Even though Fiji’s suspension was revoked following elections last year, Bainimarama refuses to attend meetings until Australia and New Zealand leave the group. Others, notably Samoa and PNG, have emphasised more gradual regional reform. Membership is also divided over the status of West Papua, which has been part of Indonesia since its annexation in 1969. Members have to weigh their economic interests with Indonesia against solidarity with Pacific brothers.
Fiji’s suspension was perhaps the most extreme action taken in Pacific diplomacy, which normally functions through consensus. Avoiding conflict and respecting “kastom” are the hallmarks of Pacific cultures. This has not been sufficiently understood by developed country partners, which have often mistaken polite silence for consent, only to be disappointed later. Domestically, several countries have experienced frequent and abrupt political change; agreements signed by a PM are sometimes forgotten by successors.
In this environment, the importance of continued engagement with all stakeholders cannot be overstated. It is understable that India has a special friendship with Fiji, but it also needs to proactively develop close relations with other island countries and expand its engagement beyond the current political leadership. This will safeguard its interests in a region with fleeting political stability. Establishing diplomatic presence in each country would be a welcome first step. Following up on initiatives announced last week would be another. For example, Modi announced several scholarships for the countries last week; he should ensure that they are taken up. Ultimately, diplomacy and politics in the Pacific are personality driven. Anything less than close engagement is no engagement at all.
The writer is a former trade economist with the government of Vanuatu.
No, your excellency