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India steps up presence in South Pacific to counter China’s influence

India is increasing its engagement with the Pacific Island Countries (PIC) to counter China’s growing presence and influence in the region. Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 12-point action plan to boost India’s cooperation with the PIC at the third Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) summit he co-chaired with his Papua New Guinea (PNG) counterpart James Marape on Tuesday.

The action plan includes initiatives such as providing vaccines and medicines, enhancing trade and investment, expanding digital connectivity, supporting renewable energy projects, offering scholarships and training programmes, and facilitating visa arrangements for the PIC.

Modi also assured the PIC leaders that India was a reliable partner that supported a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific and respected the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries. He said India stood with its Pacific Island friends during the challenging times of the Covid-19 pandemic and provided assistance in terms of vaccines, medicines, food and other essential supplies.

Modi’s visit to PNG, the first by any Indian PM, was significant as it came amid the geopolitical rivalry spurred by China’s growing presence in the resource-rich region, especially in the form of a security pact Beijing signed with Solomon Islands last year. The US has responded with its own defence pact that secretary of state Antony Blinken signed with Marape on Monday, looking to deepen its security ties with the Pacific Islands.

China was again the elephant in the room as Modi told the PIC leaders that “those whom we considered trustworthy, it turned out that they were not standing by our side in times of need”. He did not name China but his remarks were seen as a veiled reference to Beijing’s aggressive behaviour and vaccine diplomacy in the region.

Marape, who described Modi as the leader of the Global South and said the PIC will rally behind India’s leadership at global forums, also expressed his concern over China’s activities in the region. He said China was not respecting the international rules-based order and was trying to impose its will on smaller countries.

India has been engaging with the PIC since 2014 when Modi hosted the first FIPIC summit in New Delhi. The second summit was held in Fiji in 2015. India has also established a mission in Fiji to cover all 14 PICs and has appointed honorary consuls in nine of them. India has also extended a $150 million line of credit to PNG for infrastructure development.

India’s outreach to the PIC is part of its broader Indo-Pacific vision that seeks to promote peace, stability and prosperity in the region. India also sees the PIC as an important partner in addressing global challenges such as climate change, maritime security and sustainable development.

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