Off the northeastern coast of Australia in the Pacific Ocean is a smattering of islands, which form the frontline in the battle to survive in a warming Earth, and the associated vagaries of rapid sea level rise and rash changes in climate phenomenon. Yet, these small islands — sandwiched between the United States (US), China and Australia — also serve another purpose, and an acutely important geostrategic one at that. This remote corner is being transformed by an evolving game of influence waged by two emerging global power blocs — one led by the US and another by China. At stake is control over critical shipping lines and trade routes, establishing a military presence in a sensitive region, and possibly sway over the Indo-Pacific region. And in this game, India may hold the balance.
The US has always maintained a presence in the region but China made the first move last year, ramping up efforts to build closer ties with the islands. A security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands set alarm bells ringing after a leaked draft of the pact showed that Chinese warships would be allowed to dock in the islands, and China could send forces to help in maintaining social order. Despite a push by Beijing, 10 island States refused to sign on a trade and security pact that even envisaged China funding a police training academy and closer cyber-security cooperation. Since then, members of Quad — the US, Japan, India and Australia — have been keeping a close watch. The grouping identified critical needs — a voice in international policymaking, development finance, maritime security and assistance to battle the climate crisis — and moved quickly to highlight China’s predatory lending practices and coercive diplomacy, in a bid to undercut Beijing’s influence.
It is against this backdrop that India’s summit with 14 island States within the framework of the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation is a welcome development. During Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s visit to Papua New Guinea, the first-ever by an Indian premier, New Delhi unveiled a 12-point action plan to bolster cooperation in health, renewable energy and cyber-security. India highlighted the mantra behind its development cooperation — aid is structured according to the needs of the countries — and emphasised that it will not burden local economies with unnecessary debt, a growing concern after the collapse of Sri Lanka’s economy (in which China played a hand).
The Indian plan is a good start, but only a first step in securing this strategic region from a motivated and well-financed adversary that wants to use these islands as launchpads to control the Indo-Pacific. New Delhi must consider leveraging ties with states such as Fiji that have a natural connect with India because of the presence of a diaspora, and others that have concerns about the growing clout of an assertive China. These can serve as the building blocks for cooperation with the Pacific Island States and for an Indian strategy that is coordinated and aligned with those of the other Quad members. Getting the Pacific Island States on board will help shore up India’s position at global bodies and also protect vital sea lanes. Most of all, it will prevent the Pacific region from turning into another stomping ground for Great Power contestation.