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Indian Airforce Flanker

CHOGM chance to push India as counter to China in the Pacific

By Anthony Bergin

Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop will be in London tomorrow for the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit.

As part of their mission they’ll be urging Britain and other Commonwealth nations to step up engagement in the Pacific amid concerns about the growing influence of China. This comes after the construction of a port in Vanuatu fuelled concerns about China’s ability to extend its naval power in the region.

Over the past decade, China has established deep ties with the Pacific islands, including loans, grants, scholarships, and military engagement. As with many parts of the world, such as Africa, there’s evidence that China’s involvement in the Pacific is damaging local economies. Chinese engagement is increasingly being perceived as potentially overwhelming and containing unknown risks.

The one country that could helpfully step up much more in the Pacific is India. New Delhi is way underdone in the region. But there’s now a real opportunity to increase India’s involvement to a revived Commonwealth commitment in the Pacific. India wouldn’t be directly competing with China, but rather work constructively with the islands to enhance their options and so contribute to their security and prosperity.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made good start few years ago when he announced in Fiji that islanders could get e-visas on arrival for visits to India. Three years ago Modi hosted 14 Pacific leaders in India. A number of initiatives were announced, including Pacific islands’ access to free Indian television and radio content, training for journalists and setting up India centres in the region (with books and cultural materials on India.).

But nothing much has happened since. That’s partly explained by the fact there’s only Indian diplomatic missions in two of the island states, Papua New Guinea and Fiji. There’s no permanent Indian point of contact in the dozen other island states. There’s also the problem that India’s engagement with many of the islands states is via Fiji. While the special relationship with India’s diaspora is understandable, basing New Delhi’s bilateral engagement on one community isn’t helpful: non-ethnic Indian-Pacific islanders may feel that they’re being marginalised.

Access to affordable Indian tertiary education would be very welcome in the Pacific, (India is supporting technical scholarships for islanders), along with other projects around transport, IT and telecoms. There are some areas where India might co-operate with Australia in the South Pacific.

In selected Pacific states, for example, we might co-operate around renewable energy and climate change issues where both countries have some technical expertise. Australia has now joined the International Solar Alliance led by India to roll out solar technology. Australia and India can work together to help the islands meet their energy needs.

Another area might be healthcare. India understands village economics, and much of the Pacific is made up of villages. For Australia, an area of co-operation could be in setting up much-needed dialysis units, supplying on-the-ground contacts and logistic support through our missions, with India providing equipment and staff.

Another possibility is deep seabed mining. India is an official pioneer investor with an internationally recognised mine site in the central Indian Ocean Basin and — like Australia — good geological exploration capabilities. PNG recently started a deep seabed mining operation and Solomon Islands, PNG and the Federated States of Micronesia, like Australia, all have extended continental shelves. This makes seabed mining an area where we might co-operate in the Pacific.

Another area for bilateral co-operation is disaster relief. India and Australia both have excellent capabilities to assist in disaster response, especially amphibious capabilities.

The two countries could also undertake joint naval deployments in the region. Belatedly, India has realised that it needs to match China’s assertiveness in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, and that includes expanding Delhi’s reach into the Pacific. Indeed there’s been a recent surge in India’s eastern naval deployments, including sending ships to Suva and Pohnpei, Micronesia.

This week Modi will be the first Indian prime minister to attend a Commonwealth summit since 2009.

With Indians making up more than half of the commonwealth’s population, if the organisation is to find a new purpose and not just stumble on, then India is well-placed to lead.

Now’s the time to start moving to co-operate more with India in the Pacific. If a stepped-up Indian engagement in the region succeeds, it has the potential to make us all more secure.

Originally published by: The Australian on 18 Apr 2018