Monday, November 24, 2014

Democratic India’s South Pacific push

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioned ‘democracy’ five times during his speech to the Australian Parliament last week.

There were also numerous references to ‘security’ and ‘cooperation’, and this key paragraph:

“We should collaborate more on maintaining maritime security. We should work together on the seas and collaborate in international forums. And, we should work for a universal respect for international law and global norms.”

Nothing could be clearer from the Indian leader’s message: India and Australia should provide the foundation for a democratic consensus that respects the rule of law and opposes those that would subvert it.

He never mentioned China, but Beijing is never far from Modi’s thoughts as he frames his nation’s new policies for the Asia-Pacific region.

It was no coincidence that Modi’s next stop after Australia was Suva for a meeting of Pacific Island leaders where he announced a basket of aid and other support.

This included a $1 million fund to help these small countries cope with rising sea levels resulting from climate change; support for tele-medicine and tele-education projects; promotion of trade links, relaxation of visa restrictions and the establishment of a regular Forum for India-Pacific Island Cooperation, with the next meeting to be held in India in 2015.

His intentions are clear. India well be a significant player in the Pacific region and a counterbalance to China’s growing influence there. His emphasis on maritime security and the need to respect international forums would certainly have been noted by countries like the Philippines and Vietnam, currently locked in disputes over China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Disputes which China resolutely refuses to take to international arbitration.

Was it any surprise that almost before Modi had left, Chinese President Xi Jinping flew into Suva to sign a flurry of Memorandums of Understanding with Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama including…wait for it…”provision of goods to address climate change” and “visa exemptions for Fijians travelling to China”.

China has courted Bainimarama since 2006 when he ousted his country’s democratically-elected Government in a military coup, a move that would have delighted Beijing which prefers to deal with authoritarian Governments rather than “inefficient” democracies.

For a while it seemed that Fiji might be the key to China’s influence in the South Pacific, but Bainimarama has chosen to return to the democratic path and this year his party won a general election which was considered to be fair.

Beijing must now tread more carefully, trading on the Fijian leader’s dislike of Australia and New Zealand, which opposed his previous dictatorship. India, however, is quite another matter.

It will be fascinating to see how this all plays out in the months and years to come.  

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