India and the Islands
Why did Narendra Modi go to Fiji and hold a summit of nearly a dozen South Pacific nations – including the half-island state of Papua New Guinea?
The idea was put to him by the Indian foreign ministry, one of the few times in recent times they have impressed the prime minister one suspects. Why did Modi lap it up?
Different theories abound.
One is that he has a vision of mobilizing the Indian diaspora for both domestic political and foreign policy ends. It helps that the Indian minority in Fiji is so small that they are no longer part of a political struggle between the Indian migrants and the Fijian natives. But it is hard to see how this remote island and its small population will be of much use to him.
Another is the great geopolitical game supposedly being played between India and China, and sometimes the United States. India struggles to extend its military power beyond the Straits of Malacca. Melanesia and Micronesia are beyond even its navy’s imagination. Neither India nor, I suspect, China has a chapter on the South Pacific in its Grand Strategy Blueprint.
In fact, Modi was sensibly modest in what he offered the islanders. India cannot match the aid commitments of players like China and even New Zealand. But, says Jenny Heyward-Jones, Micronesia expert of Sydney’s Lowy Institute, “they are tailored to areas India has a comparative advantage…and have a reasonable chance of development impact in the island countries.” Tele-medicine, for example, makes sense given the distance between the islands and limited medical infrastructure.
I believe Modi going to Fiji is really an example of a larger pattern of leaders of two-tier countries building larger global profiles. Shinzo Abe is now one of the most traveled Japanese prime ministers in history. And it isn’t just about reducing Chinese influence. He also went to countries on India’s periphery where New Delhi’s diktat is still stronger than those issued by Beijing. And Chinese leaders have been everywhere.
At the heart of this is a simple fact that the West’s influence in the world has dipped a lot the past few decades. In addition, emerging economies have to hard-sell themselves across the world to investors.
Modi understands the importance of narrative. He does at home anyway and I presume he gets it overseas. When he went to the United States he needed to change the narrative on India following five years of dismal UPA government. And he did, more successfully than many others who tried like the leaders of Turkey and Brazil, as one president of a prominent US think tank told me.
By putting aside one day in Fiji, probably holding an Indo-Africa summit at some point, even doing a tour of Latin America in a few years, Modi will keep adding to this new India narrative.
Some of this may have an immediate diplomatic benefit, as the world squares for another round of climate change negotiations. The South Pacific islanders, who face extinction, are hardliners against carbon emission won’t necessarily be won over by Modi’s climate change pitch. As Heyward-Jnnes notes, “climate change is an existential threat..its the one thing that unites them, even against their friends.” But hopefully they will at least understand where India comes from when it pushes hard against carbon pressures.