Foreign Policy Watch: India-Pacific Island Nations

[op-ed snap] Raja Mandala: Battle for islands

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Mains Paper 2: IR | Bilateral, regional & global groupings & agreements involving India &/or affecting India’s interests

From the UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Not much

Mains level: Chinese influence among Pacific island nations and the need to counter it


Importance of island nations

  1. At the dawn of the modern maritime age four centuries ago, control of critically-located islands became an important part of the rivalry between European powers in the Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific
  2. Islands helped the replenishment of supplies, positioning of troops and ammunition as well as for the host ship to do repair and maintenance
  3. Island dominance was the key to securing the sea lines of communication
  4. The Anglo-American maritime dominance over the last two centuries helped limit the contestation for the islands

Renewed focus on maritime nations

  1. Simultaneous developments last week in different corners of the Indo-Pacific — from the Maldives to Papua New Guinea — remind us of the renewed geopolitical importance of the island states
  2. Connecting these diverse developments is China’s push for greater influence in the Indo-Pacific and the belated resistance from rival powers — including India, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the United States
  3. Today, the rise of China has pitchforked the island states back to the centre stage of major power politics

India-China rivalry in neighbourhood island nations

  1. Modi’s presence at the swearing-in of the new president of the Maldives, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, underlined the renewed warmth in the relations between India & the Maldives
  2. Under Solih’s predecessor, Abdulla Yameen, India’s relations with the Maldives rapidly deteriorated even as China’s influence began to rise
  3. The contestation between Delhi and Beijing in the Maldives inevitably got intertwined with the democratic struggle of the opposition parties to end Yameen’s autocracy
  4. The intersection of Sino-Indian rivalry with domestic politics has also come to the fore in neighbouring Sri Lanka
  5. Last month, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena dismissed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and installed the former president Mahinda Rajapaksa as the head of government
  6. Even before the rest of the world could absorb the meaning of Sirisena’s political coup, the Chinese ambassador in Colombo showed up at Rajapaksa’s office to congratulate him and convey the best wishes of President Xi
  7. India, the US and EU, in contrast, emphasised the importance of due constitutional process and letting parliament test which party had the majority

What do these developments point to?

  1. If China is widely seen as the loser — at least for the moment — from the elections in the Maldives, it was seen as a winner in Rajapaksa’s return to power
  2. During his decade-long rule of Sri Lanka (2004-15), Colombo seemed to steadily drift into China’s orbit
  3. Symbolising China’s new influence in Lanka were the strategic contracts it won to build the Colombo port city and the construction of a new port at Hambantota in the southern part of the island
  4. India, in turn, appeared to lose its historic primacy in the island state

Other cases of China’s raised intervention in island states

  1. Recently the island state of Papua New Guinea hosted the annual summit of the forum for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation
  2. How did the poorest member of the forum venture to host the summit that brings leaders from 20-odd countries
  3. Well, the Chinese and Australians have lent generous assistance
  4. As in the Maldives and Sri Lanka, the last few years have seen a spectacular rise in Chinese commercial and political presence in Papua New Guinea

US and Australia trying to counter China

  1. As speculation mounted that China might be in quest of a military base in Papua New Guinea, Australia and the US moved in and announced that they will fund the development of the port facilities in the Manus Island to the north-east of the main island
  2. Earlier this year, Canberra nudged Beijing out of a deal to build an undersea internet cable between Papua, Australia and the Solomon Islands
  3. Recently, Australia joined the US, Japan and New Zealand in unveiling a project to provide electricity to 70 per cent of the Papua New Guinea population by 2030
  4. Like Delhi in the Indian Ocean, Canberra and Wellington had underestimated the scale and speed of China’s power projection into their South Pacific neighbourhood
  5. So did the US, which failed to react in time to China’s push to gain control of the small rocks and islands of the South China Sea at the beginning of this decade

Way forward

  1. The unfolding contestation for influence in the island states of the Indo-Pacific has just begun
  2. It is unlikely to end any time soon — for one setback in the Maldives or Papua does not diminish China’s growing weight in the Indo-Pacific or its determination to project power far beyond its shores
  3. Unlike the European colonial powers, which could easily prevail over natives of the strategic island territories, today’s major powers have to deal with the more complex domestic politics of the island nations
  4. The ruling regimes in these islands have agency and the capacity to play one power against the other
  5. That promises to make the battle for the islands a prolonged and exciting political spectacle in the Indo-Pacific
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