Incoming Pacific Islands Forum SG Henry Puna after his retirement speech in Parliament. BYRON BROWN/21032315
The appointment of former Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna as the Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum is watched with interest from the corridors of power in New Delhi. By Balaji Chandramohan.
As India is trying to stake claims as a
competitor in the wider Indo Pacific against China, the evolving complex
geopolitics of the Pacific Islands has come under the expanding strategic radar
of New Delhi.
New Delhi understands that the Pacific Islands
geopolitics is dominated by the ever increasing one up among Micronesia,
Melanesia and Polynesia. The recent issue involving the Secretary General
appointment has made things complicated but has interest in India’s strategic
calculus. India has started to understand the geopolitical playbook of the
To start with, the selection of the PIF
secretary-general is a consensus decision, and by longstanding agreement, PIF’s
three sub-regions – Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia – take turns putting
up a candidate.
It’s understood that the Secretary General of
the Pacific Islands Forum is rotated through the secretary general role, and
this was to be Micronesia’s turn. In the end Henry Puna won the election by a
single vote. Over the history of the agreement on sub-regional rotation,
Micronesia has only produced one secretary-general, compared to Polynesia’s
seven, Melanesia’s three, and Australia’s two.
With the above background, India wishes to
open diplomatic missions in several countries of the South Pacific, including
Samoa and Tonga (which are currently served from Wellington and Suva
respectively). The increased presence and India’s desire to enhance its
influence in the Pacific Islands Forum could be motivational.
India as it wants to become a permanent member
of the forum understands that it provides an important annual opportunity for
Pacific Islands leaders to discuss the political, economic and developmental
issues facing the region in a time of rapid change, globalisation and
On that note, New Delhi has been seeking
membership status which has thus far not materialised. India shares the
Commonwealth heritage and common interests with most countries of the region. A
full membership will be mutually beneficial. As an extension, India will seek
to have membership or observer status at the Polynesian Spearhead Group and
Melanesian Spearhead Group.
Now coming to the present, the geopolitical
stake of the Pacific Islands will increase as Samoa, Cook Islands and Fiji are
all set to have elections in the near future. In that context, locally there
will be pressure within the countries to raise the stakes in the Pacific
Apart from the issue of Secretary General it’s
true that the Pacific Islands will be witnessing increased competition on sub
regional multilateral forums such as Polynesian Spearhead Group and Melanesian
Spearhead Group all trying increase their stake in the geopolitics of the South
Pacific and the Pacific Islands.
On the other hand, China will also view for
more status to claim in the Pacific Islands Forum. Though it’s true that
Australia and New Zealand understands the increased Chinese presence in the
Pacific Islands, it’s understood that they will also join hands with the United
States, India and France to make sure that Beijing doesn’t have increased
influence in the region.
As India is expanding its maritime reach to
the Pacific Islands, the region falls organically into China’s maritime
strategic thinking as a part of its oft-stated “island chain” strategy. Beijing
largely benefited with good terms with Washington during the Cold War, paving
the way for its politico-military expansion in the Pacific Islands (which began
quietly in the early 1980s).
In fact, India at present has permanent diplomatic
postings only in Fiji and Papua New Guinea, none with military attaches. India
is expected to seek membership in the Melanesian Spearhead Group as a tactical
move to counter China’s expansion in the South Pacific region, especially in
the Melanesian countries where its influence is increasing.
On the other hand, strategic watchers from
India understands that 2019 Indo–Pacific Strategy Report released by the US
Department of Defence did little to acknowledge the strategic importance of the
Pacific Islands within its conceptualisation of a FOIP (Free and Open
Both the United States and India will increase
their engagement with rising regional powers such as PNG and Fiji. PNG and Fiji
have distinguished themselves as emerging activist regional powers in the
Pacific Islands Region
In conclusion, the upcoming Pacific Islands
Summit in August will be a game changer in the Pacific Island geopolitics and
it’s understood that as Fiji is set to host the Pacific Islands Forum, it will
see itself to increase its status among the Forum.
To add more weightage to the summit, Fiji
Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama has also invited the newly-elected United
States President Joe Biden for the Forum and it’s to be seen how the
geopolitics will shape up in the months and years to come in the Pacific
Islands. In that context, India will also watch with interest and it’s likely
that India will send a high-level delegation to the Forum which will be
scheduled in August.
Balaji Chandramohan is a Research Scholar with
the University of Madras. Previously, he was a Visiting Fellow with Future
Directions International, Perth Australia. He has written, worked and done
research in media platforms.