In 2014, Narendra Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to have visited the Oceanic country of Fiji, 33 years after former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visited its capital Suva, in 1981. The 2014 visit carried immense significance, especially since Fiji is an integral part of PM Modi’s “Look East/ Act East Policy”, and is central to India’s strategic positioning in the South Pacific region.
Fiji also played a critical role as a Space observation centre for India in its Mars Mission ‘Mangalyaan’, and Modi took the 2014 visit as an opportunity to thank the country for the same. The financial support India provided to Fiji’s Sugar mills in 2005 (amounting to $50.4 million), added on to by the Diaspora links between the two nations and the development of a rigorous ‘Act East’ Policy by India, have come to mark a defining era for the partnership.
In an interview in June 2016, PM Modi remarked, “The Small States are as important as Larger Ones,” and he asserted that he had made changes to India’s former approach of assuming that relations with smaller nations would only develop under the shadow of the bigger nations. In this light, India’s ever-growing relationship with the Small Pacific Island of Fiji fits right in PM Modi’s purview of cooperation with small states.
Not only does Fiji sit at the crossroads of trade and connectivity within the southern Indo-Pacific, it provides highly trained manpower at a lower cost, making it an ideal hub for Indian businesses looking to invest in the markets of New Zealand, Australia, other Oceanic countries, or even Fiji itself. Fiji is also central to the connectivity of the Indian subcontinent with Australasia and Latin American countries. In a recent address made by HE. Mr.Yogesh Punja, the High Commissioner of India to Fiji, he mentioned that Fiji would be welcoming investments in healthcare, infrastructure, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, technology, tourism and climate change from India, further highlighting the diverse potential that exists for the partnership between the two nations.
As the declared co-founder of PM Modi’s 2017 International Solar Alliance, Fiji’s vitality in the field of renewable energy cooperation is immense. While the country does depend on fossil fuel imports to meet its domestic electricity requirements, approximately 55% of its annual energy needs are met through hydropower, which is the largest consumption of renewable energy for any of the Pacific Island nations. Moreover, the country has great unexploited potential for the combined usage of marine, geothermal, biomass and solar power to meet energy requirements of the population, and is on the path to extract 100% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030.
However, India is not without competition here. As a signatory to China’s 2013 Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Fiji has taken financial support of $30 million under the BRI to develop infrastructure projects within the Island nation. Fiji has openly stated that despite its criticisms, the BRI is meant to create “inclusivity and mutual benefit” for both China and Fiji (a narrative that has been propagated from both sides). China’s increasing political, economic and military presence in small Pacific Islands, including Fiji, is a cause of concern for New Zealand, Australia, the United States and India. China’s strategic assertions in the Indo-Pacific in general and the South China Sea in particular, especially through its ‘String of Pearls’ strategy, threatens stability in the region while undermining institutions like the Association of Southeast Asian nations (ASEAN).
It is also important to consider the role of the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) in India’s outreach to the Pacific Island countries. Proposed by the Modi government in 2014, the FIPIC is meant to act as a cooperative body between India and the South Pacific Island nations for the integration of partnerships in the fields of agriculture, fisheries, food processing, solar energy, e-networks, tele-education, tele-medicine, space cooperation and climate change. The FIPIC is an important strategy under Modi’s umbrella ‘Act East Policy’, as it promises to extend to the Pacific Islands, the privilege of becoming an Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) for operations of Indian businesses.
But India’s primary motives in the functioning of this grouping can be best understood through its strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific, and its attempt to counter the ever-rising influence of China’s BRI in the region. China’s debt-trap diplomacy has already led to loyalties of many of India’s economic and diplomatic partners shifting between itself and China, including Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Myanmar and even Fiji. In such a scenario, India realizes the need to chart out a counter-China focus through regional groupings such as the FIPIC.
A stronger India-Fiji Pacific partnership, in this light, would prove to be a step in the right direction. India’s capacity to increasingly provide infrastructural and financial aid to these Island nations can perhaps provide a good rivalry to China’s BRI. While the FIPIC has already promised a line of credit from India to each of the Pacific nations for the development of infrastructural projects of their choice, India must also expand its defense cooperation with these small Island nations.
While the maritime defense has been an area of promise in the India-Fiji ties, the potential of this promise is yet to be achieved. In 2016, the Indian Naval ship Sumitra visited Fiji carrying five tonnes of vegetable seeds, and in 2017, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed between the two nations on naval defense cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. It is now time for both nations to expand the scope of this MoU, by conducting joint naval exercises and working towards the common goal of attaining maritime security in the region, particularly against the military interventions of China and the U.S, and against pirate insurgencies on the Pacific seas.
India intends to become a primary Pacific partner to the South Pacific Island nations, and in establishing its geopolitical hegemony in the Asia-Pacific narrative, will only be possible through cooperation in diverse areas like technological, agricultural, environmental and military cooperation with Fiji, and with other Oceanic states.
It can be noted that a strengthened India-Fiji relationship would mean stronger representation of both the sides in the often undermined Commonwealth of Nations, a body with an inherently diverse capacity to address issues such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, Climate Crisis, sinking of the small Pacific Islands, and so on. From this perspective, climate change and sustainable development are two vital areas of collaboration between the two nations, with Fiji already leading the way in the use of renewable energy, and the fact that PM Bainimarama has begun planning the shifting of 40 Fijian villages to a greater height amidst the rising sea levels in the Indo-Pacific.
India could utilize FIPIC as a platform to support the endeavours of Fiji, and other endangered island states like Tuvalu and Marshall Islands, in combating climate change. The spirit of cultural, religious and diaspora ties between India and Fiji has also been bridging the distance, especially since approximately 37% of Fiji’s population comprises people of Indian origin (2009 estimates). The blueprint of cooperation among India, Fiji and the Pacific Islands should be implemented rigorously to be able to secure the geostrategic influence that it aims in the Indo-Pacific.