Synopsis

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s just concluded visit to Fiji marks the beginning of a strategic Indian approach to the South Pacific. Beyond reconnecting with the Indian diaspora, Delhi is looking to forge a development partnership with the Pacific islands.

Commentary

 

INDIAN PRIME Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprising decision to visit Fiji and the warm welcome he received there are likely to put India into the geopolitical fray among the major powers in the South Pacific.

 

The last time an Indian prime minister traveled to Fiji was in 1981 when Indira Gandhi arrived there. Since then much has happened in Fiji and around it. The intensification of ethnic conflict in Fiji between the Indian immigrants, who had arrived in the late 19th century as indentured labour, and the native populations saw Delhi focus exclusively on securing the interests of the diaspora.

 

Leveraging on the Indian Diaspora?

The political turbulence in Fiji since the late 1980s and the ethnic tension between the indigenous inhabitants and the local Indian community saw Delhi focus on bringing international measures against the government in Suva and lose its broader influence in the Island. Modi’s visit comes in the wake of India’s attempt at constructive engagement with Fiji in the last few years.

 

In the island itself, the elections earlier this year saw the strongman Frank Bainimarama, who seized power in a coup eight years ago, shed his military uniform and win a democratic election with the support of ethnic minorities, including sections of the Indian community.

 

Against the backdrop of the restoration of democracy in Fiji which set a positive context for Modi’s visit, the Indian premier announced a number of steps to boost India’s relationship with Suva. This included the expansion of India’s development partnership with Fiji, improving air links and announcing visa on arrival for citizens of Fiji.

 

Long seen as the backwaters of global politics, the South Pacific has emerged as a theatre in the unfolding great power contestation in the Pacific. As elsewhere, the rapid rise of China and its intensive outreach to the islands in the last few years have stirred other major powers into action. What began initially as a competition with Taiwan for diplomatic recognition among the island states has now acquired an intensive strategic dimension.