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.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi shocked the international system when his government blackmailed the Doha round of the World Trade Organisation by saying, in effect, “give us a permanent food security solution or we will block the unrelated trade facilitation agreement (TFA).” Read more
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
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
Asia-Pacific is geopolitical shorthand these days for Sino-Japanese. At least that’s the impression I got while attending the 26th Asia-Pacific Roundtable of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Read more
The first three taxis I took in London this week were driven by South Asians — and they each provided an interesting sense of how India is perceived by its own diaspora and those of neighbouring states. Read more
I don’t know whether Narendra Modi will become prime minister — though I suspect so — and I don’t know whether he’s given much thought to foreign policy — my sense, is that he hasn’t beyond the economic dimension. Read more
The Indian Muslim community is worried about the possible advent of a Narendra Modi government — and understandably so given the unanswered questions regarding the 2002 Gujarat riots. Read more
As India becomes caught in electoral frenzy, there is the odd interest among a few of the citizenry about whom the rest of the world would like to see win the polls. This is often coupled with a conspiracy theory or another largely because the truth is that most foreign governments don’t really have a favourite candidate in mind – though many Indians one meets find that hard to believe. Read more
The tale of Narendra Modi and the United States is also a parable of how the relationship between the two countries requires constant work. Read more