Academic journal article Indian Foreign Affairs Journal

India's Engagement with the Pacific Islands

Academic journal article Indian Foreign Affairs Journal

India's Engagement with the Pacific Islands

Article excerpt

India has recently stepped up its engagement with the Pacific Island Developing Countries (PIDC).^sup 1^ This may be seen as an extension of its "Look East - Act East" policy, and enhancement of its role in the Pacific region. While relations with Fiji have developed well keeping in view special historical factors, India's relations with the other Pacific Island countries offer much scope for further expansion. Development assistance trends to the region are briefly surveyed in this article, including that from China. The recently launched Forum for India Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) process and India's economic engagement with the Pacific islands is also examined.


The Pacific region has been an important geostrategic area, with powers, such as the US, China, Russia, Japan, Australia, France and UK competing with other littoral states for influence and access to land and sea based resources. Important sea lanes of communication traverse the Pacific Ocean, the world's largest ocean, linking Asia with the Americas. The Pacific Ocean accounts for 31 per cent of the earth's surface area, 45 per cent of the earth's ocean space, and a substantial part of the world's fishery resources. It has boundaries with 43 countries, (including the 16 Pacific Island states), and with ten dependent territories; and it contains 20000 to 30000 islands.2 Since the 16th century, European powers such as Spain, Portugal, Britain and France expanded their influence in this region, joined by Russia, Japan and the US in the 18th century. During World War II, the Pacific region witnessed fierce battles between Japanese and Allied forces led by the US. The US and USSR/Russia and now China have deployed nuclear submarines in the Pacific to provide strategic deterrence. India is a relatively new entrant in this zone of strategic rivalry.

The Pacific Islands-Socio-cultural Aspects

The Pacific Ocean contains a large number of islands. These can be grouped into Micronesia (Northern Pacific), Melanesia (Western Pacific), and Polynesia (Eastern and Central Pacific). The islands generally are larger in size as one goes westward. Culturally, the peoples of the region are very diverse. About 2.3 million people are Austronesian, speaking Oceanian languages, and live mostly in Polynesia, Micronesia, and the smaller islands of Melanesia. About 7 million people are Papuan, speaking Papuan languages, and live mostly in Papua New Guinea and adjacent islands. Arriving first in the region, the Melanesian ancestors settled in the high islands of the Western Pacific. With abundant resources and a complex topography, Melanesian communities developed largely isolated from one another, leading to a multiplicity of languages and cultural traits. In contrast, the resource-poor islands of Polynesia and Micronesia provided the motive for sea travels and expansion into the outer edges of the Pacific Ocean.

For the Pacific Islanders, the ocean is a shared resource as well as a barrier of isolation. The deep oceans represent the frontier, a region of underexploited resources of high economic and strategic value. Yet for most Pacific Islanders, the coastal areas surrounding their islands provide the food, income, culture, and recreation that are so important.

Exclusive Economic Zone Areas and Issues

While many of the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) countries have small land areas, some have large EEZs . The table below indicates the land areas, populations, EEZ areas, continental shelf areas, and total areas.3

Thus, the small island of Kiribati has a large EEZ , making the total area quite large. This is significant as the EEZ may contain significant natural resources, including living resources. However, the ability of small island states to police and protect their EEZ remains a formidable challenge. Also, the existence of overlapping EEZs between two or more states requires settlement of maritime boundaries7, requiring considerable legal and technical expertise. …

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