Why did Narendra Modi go to Fiji and hold a summit of nearly a dozen South Pacific nations – including the half-island state of Papua New Guinea?

The idea was put to him by the Indian foreign ministry, one of the few times in recent times they have impressed the prime minister one suspects. Why did Modi lap it up?

Different theories abound.

One is that he has a vision of mobilizing the Indian diaspora for both domestic political and foreign policy ends. It helps that the Indian minority in Fiji is so small that they are no longer part of a political struggle between the Indian migrants and the Fijian natives. But it is hard to see how this remote island and its small population will be of much use to him.

Another is the great geopolitical game supposedly being played between India and China, and sometimes the United States. India struggles to extend its military power beyond the Straits of Malacca. Melanesia and Micronesia are beyond even its navy’s imagination. Neither India nor, I suspect, China has a chapter on the South Pacific in its Grand Strategy Blueprint.

In fact, Modi was sensibly modest in what he offered the islanders. India cannot match the aid commitments of players like China and even New Zealand. But, says Jenny Heyward-Jones, Micronesia expert of Sydney’s Lowy Institute, “they are tailored to areas India has a comparative advantage…and have a reasonable chance of development impact in the island countries.” Tele-medicine, for example, makes sense given the distance between the islands and limited medical infrastructure.

I believe Modi going to Fiji is really an example of a larger pattern of leaders of two-tier countries building larger global profiles. Shinzo Abe is now one of the most travelled Japanese prime ministers in history. And it isn’t just about reducing Chinese influene. He also went to countries on India’s periphery where New Delhi’s diktat is still stronger than those issued by Beijing. And Chinese leaders have been everywhere.

At the heart of this is a simple fact that the West’s influence in the world has dipped a lot the past few decades. In addition, emerging economies have to hardsell themselves across the world to investors.

Modi understands the importance of narrative. He does at home anyway and I presume he gets it overseas. When he went to the United States he needed to change the narrative on India following five years of dismal UPA government. And he did, more successfully than many others who tried like the leaders of Turkey and Brazil, as one president of a prominent US think tank told me.

By putting aside one day in Fiji, probably holding an Indo-Africa summit at some point, even doing a tour of Latin America in a few years, Modi will keep adding to this new India narrative.

Some of this may have an immediate diplomatic benefit, as the world squares for another round of climate change negotiations. The South Pacific islanders, who face extinction, are hardliners against carbon emission won’t necessarily be won over by Modi’s climate change pitch. As Heyward-Jnnes notes, “climate change is an existential threat..its the one thing that unites them, even against their friends.” But hopefully they will at least understand where India comes from when it pushes hard against carbon pressures.

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Many Indians ask me how India can avoid a bloody nose if it cozies up to Japan. Some were surprised when Prime Minister Narendra Modi denounced some unname Asian country’s “expansionist” ways and said the continent could not have “18th century” ways of behaviour. “How can he expect China not to react badly?” I was asked. Read more

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Those who have lived in Calcutta, it is likely they ran into red and yellow mini-buses declaring “Indo-Japani Gate” as one of their destinations. I have never seen the gate and am not even sure where it is, but it was a landmark well known to most in the city. Read more

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Though the world was quite shocked, India’s decision to hold the World Trade Organisation’s trade facilitation agreement to ransom was not a complete surprise. Read more

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India is heading to be declared a “priority foreign country” by the United States Trade Representative over its intellectual property rights. It is not helping things by refusing to meet US officials to discuss the issue. Read more

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India is probably more dependent on the West Asia and North Africa region than any other part of the world, especially that big chunk of WANA that is around the Persian Gulf. And it is one of the regions which the Indian strategic community struggles to get its head around. Read more

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As happens a two or three times a year, I was invited to a state banquet on Thursday. This was being held by President Pranab Mukherjee for his newly elected counterpart from the Maldives, Yaamin Abdul Gayoom.

My sense was that this was a necessary bit of confidence building for the two countries. Gayoom making sure India was the first country he would visit. New Delhi getting a chance to remind him of what India saw as its interests in this scattered archipelago nation, strategically athwart the Indian Ocean.

After all, the Maldivian presidential election was far from controversy free. The incumbent had come to power by a quasi-coup. The election had been repeatedly postponed by a Supreme Court known to be composed of Gayoom loyalists with the purpose of the eventual winner being able to strike a deal with the number three candidate.

All a bit murky, definitely legally questionable, and all very Maldivian given the deep personal divisions that mark the politics of this tiny — population wise — nation. Said one ex-ambassador to Male, “Some 26 families run the whole country.”

I was number 40 in the order of protocol when the assembled guests were lined up in the Ashoke Hall to shake the chief guest’s hand. Gayoom smiled and said, “Happy New Year,” when I murmured welcoming noises.

Mukherjee, during his toast, made the normal nice noises that are made at state banquets. But I noticed that more than a few lines were about Indian Ocean security and included un-banquet like language like “maritime domain awareness” and “naval surveillance.” I conjectured that it was being underlined to Gayoom that the naval understandings India had struck with the Maldives and Sri Lanka in the past were things New Delhi expected policy continuity.

A number of Indian businessmen were seated at the banquet. Anecdotally, I got the sense that especially infrastructure and housing firms tended to cluster in an area ranging from Sri Lanka to Ethiopia and East Africa, a wedge of the Indan Ocean littoral area.

Inevitably, the Andhra infrastructure firm GMR was well represented. Though GMR seems set to exit the Male airport, this will take some untangling. New Delhi has ensured that both sides have taken it to arbitration. But the Maldivian government is caught in a cul de sac.

If it wins the arbitration case, it will need to compensate GMR a whopping sum of money — which the Maldives doesn’t happen to have. The Maldivians claim they can the run the airport. But few believe this. This could mean, the Indian system worries, a third party coming in and possibly loaded with much renminbi.

Rashtrapati Bhavan food is not the greatest, though the Goan fish curry was passable. President Mukherjee is know to roll out an excellent Bengali repast when he travels around the country. However foreign guest seem to get a pan-Indian spread where variety tends to overwhelm the quality. But state banquets aren’t about culinary stuff, they are about pomp, circumstance and a chance to get a bit of capitol gossip.

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Nothing succeeds like success. And the opposite is also true:once you start going down the slippery slope, the process only accelerates until you reach rock-bottom.India has yet to reach rock bottom but the ill-effects of its decline are evident in its global standing and influence. Read more

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India and the United States are back to squabbling. This is partly because the strategic content of the relationship is diluted these days. But also because the two democracies aren’t talking as much as they should to each other – despite having 40 plus bilateral dialogues. Read more

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Among the hundred or so books on China in my home, there is a hardback red volume titled “The 60th Anniversary of the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations between China and India.” The book is outwardly a boring set of largely black and white photographs of official visits and events held between India and China obviously taken by the government-hired photographer of the day. Read more

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