Claim the epicentre of global trade

The Asia Pacific region has emerged as a global epicentre for trade and economy, politics and diplomacy and has thus raised concerns over security.  Recognising its importance, the United States, has termed the region as a “pivot” and has expressed its intention to “rebalance” its priorities in this  theatre. The emerging power, China, too has made substantial forays. Now it is India’s turn to emerge as another major player and play its part in the region.

One of the substantial takeaways from the recent 10-day visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to this region was not only the change in the country’s ‘Look East Policy’ to ‘Act East Policy’ but also in strengthening of the bonds with nations east to the Pacific Islands, which was long overdue. Another was inking of an elaborate framework for security cooperation with Australia, a key player in the region. Modi’s bilateral meetings with leaders in the region, at the margins of India-ASEAN Summit and East Asia Summit, would result in deeper engagements.

However, for India to play a more proactive role in the region, it needs to be a member of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). India already has a presence in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meet and is represented in the East Asia Summit (EAS) and Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), which is held at a summit level. It also participates in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and in ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meetings (ADMM). The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is being worked out with the 10-member ASEAN bloc and seven other countries including India.

In his recent visit to Fiji, Modi formalised the first meeting of leaders from 14 Pacific Island countries including Cooks Island, Tonga, Tuvalu, Nauru, Kiribati, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Samoa, Niue, Palau, Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Fiji and Papua New Guinea, which form the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) along with Australia. Next such India-PIF Summit level meeting is scheduled to be held at a coastal city in India. With all such engagements, India  does qualify for membership in the APEC.

Modi has rightly lauded Fiji’s return to democracy under its new constitution that gives equal rights to all citizens, including Indian citizens in that country. The wisest decision was to rope in the Pacific Island countries through Pan-Pacific IT network for tele-medicines and tele-education on the lines of Pan-Africa IT network successfully implemented by India. He further announced visa-on-arrival for citizens of all 14 PIF countries, setting up of $1 million Adaptation Fund to combat climate change and delivered assurances  on setting up regional hubs for solar energy.

India will provide $125,000 Grant-in-aid annually to each PIF country for locally selected community projects. With a view to increase trade between PIF countries and India, Modi assured New Delhi’s help in setting up trade offices in PIF missions in India. Sharing of IT experiences, training of diplomats, capacity building, cooperation in space technology was also assured by him.

As Fiji has been selected as India’s launching pad, Modi announced $5 million grant for modernising Fiji’s village, small and medium industries, $70 million for co-generation power plant at Rarav Sugar Mill, $5 million line of credit for upgrading sugar industry, setting up of a centre of excellence in IT and build Digital Fiji, setting up of a regional hub for space technology, assisting to set up e-library in Fiji Parliament and doubling scholarship and training slots for Fiji students.

However, much more needs to be done to ensure a perfect marriage between the India and the island nations on the Pacific Ocean. New Delhi should take the initiative in this direction. About two-thirds of global trade passes through this region. Maritime piracy is gaining grounds and this calls for perfect vigilance and adequate maritime security.

The Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), in which India is a member along with 19 other countries, is still in its infancy. IORA meetings take place at the level of foreign ministers. At present Australia, Bangladesh, Comoros, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kenya, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mozambique, Oman, Seychelles, Singapore, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Thailand, UAE and Yemen are members. China, Egypt, France, Japan, UK and the US are its Dialogue Partners.

There is an urgent need for including all countries in the Indian Ocean Rim as members of IORA.

Egypt which is situated on the banks of the Suez Canal should be taken in as a member and not as a mere Dialogue Partner. Absolute priority should be given to upgrade IORA to summit-level talks. Like ASEAN, the IORA group should be based perfectly on geographical necessity and thus maintain its own centrality. All other countries can be co-opted as Dialogue Partners or Observers with limited roles, particularly in an advisory capacity. Australia, which is currently the chair of IORA, has much to do to initiate the process of integration in the Indian Ocean Rim and subsequently raising it to the level of Summit level talks. Initiatives should be taken to intensify Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS).

Regional blocs in the Asia-Pacific have become an urgent necessity in the era of globalisation.

Greater integration among South Asian nations is an important endevaour that must be pursued to its logical conclusion.

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