In recent times, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Papua New Guinea has shed light on India’s growing engagement with the Pacific islands region. This visit marks Modi’s second trip to the region, with his last visit taking place in 2014 to Fiji. It’s worth noting that no Indian prime minister had visited the region since 1981 when Indira Gandhi traveled to Fiji, making the intervening period quite significant.
India’s increasing engagement with the Pacific islands signifies that New Delhi recognizes the existing gaps in the region. Australia, in particular, has the potential to be an effective partner for India, especially in addressing the capacity constraints faced by Pacific island countries in terms of maritime security.
India already plays a leading role in enhancing the maritime security capabilities of smaller nations in the Indian Ocean region. This assistance includes support in maritime law enforcement, domain awareness, as well as providing boats and aircraft to regional partners. However, India’s strategic focus has been primarily on the Indian Ocean, and it has struggled to extend its resources and intentions effectively in the western Pacific region. With significant threats along its northern land borders and limited naval and coastguard capabilities, India alone may face challenges in strengthening the maritime security capacities of Pacific island countries.
It is rather puzzling that maritime security did not feature prominently in the action plan from the third summit of the Forum for India–Pacific Islands Cooperation in Port Moresby. There are compelling reasons why this issue should have been prioritized. Despite its geographical distance from the Pacific, India enjoys the trust of many Pacific island countries as a natural partner in addressing their strategic concerns, particularly those related to climate change.
India is often seen as a viable third alternative to major powers like China, whose aid often comes with geopolitical strings attached. Moreover, India possesses significant experience in dealing with the types of maritime security threats that Pacific island countries are vulnerable to. In 2017, India and Fiji signed an agreement to expand defense cooperation in maritime security, setting a precedent that could be extended to other Pacific island nations, building upon Australia’s expertise in this field.
Australia has long been committed to supporting Pacific island countries, particularly through security cooperation that spans various areas, from defense to human security. While there are ongoing programs in place, India can easily collaborate with Australia in three key areas to amplify these efforts.
Firstly, India can make substantial contributions to the Pacific Fusion Centre in Vanuatu, which offers strategic assessments and advisory services to member countries to address security issues. India’s expertise in developing domain awareness solutions, such as the Information Fusion Centre – Indian Ocean Region, could be highly valuable. Additionally, India’s proficiency in maritime surveillance equipment, including shore-based radars, automatic identification system transponders, and satellite-based surveillance systems, could be leveraged to benefit the Pacific region. India’s involvement could also extend to improving maritime security software and providing technical support.
Secondly, India and Australia can jointly enhance training initiatives. The Indian Navy has a well-established program for training international naval personnel, offering basic and advanced courses for sailors and officers. Several Fijian military personnel have already received training in Indian naval establishments. India’s defense ministry could collaborate with the Australia Pacific Security College to deliver professional training modules to military and civilian personnel from Pacific island countries. Moreover, India and Australia could provide operational exposure to naval personnel from the Pacific islands by involving them as observers in bilateral and multilateral exercises such as AUSINDEX and Malabar.
Thirdly, India could significantly contribute to the Pacific Maritime Security Program, wherein Australia provides patrol boats, training, and maintenance support to Pacific island countries. While this program has successfully enhanced maritime security capabilities in the region, the escalating security challenges demand sustained and substantial efforts. India can extend its support to the Indian Ocean island countries to supplement Australia’s endeavors and strengthen maritime security capacity-building in the Pacific islands region.
To further enhance India’s engagement with Pacific island countries, it would be beneficial to appoint a dedicated defense adviser to the region, possibly based at the high commission in Suva, Fiji. Currently, the defense adviser at the high commission in Australia fulfills this role. This move would not only reassure Pacific partners of India’s commitment to constructive engagement but also facilitate increased collaboration with Australia in capacity-building endeavors.
In a recent article, the positive impact of India’s increasing involvement in the Pacific region was highlighted, urging Australia not to impede this progress. If Australia and India join forces to build maritime security capabilities in the Pacific islands region, it could lead to even more favorable outcomes for all parties involved.