Modi in Fiji: The marching Elephant & the flying dragon

Updated: Nov 18, 2014, 17:27 PM IST

Located in the heart of Pacific Ocean, Fiji, had it never so good in terms of international diplomacy as this week, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jingping coming over to strengthen bilateral ties and further their stakes in Oceania.

As one of the most advanced economies in the region, Fiji holds influence in a region that is steadily climbing up the ranks in geopolitical sweepstakes.

Given PM Narendra Modi's emphasis on actively engaging countries in the Asia-Pacific, his tour to Fiji – where he will also meet leaders of other countries from the neighbourhood - holds the potential to change the dynamics of India's engagement with countries in the Pacific.

While India has historical links with Fiji – Indians had arrived in Fiji as indentured labour to work in imperial sugarcane fields in the 19th century – and bilateral ties have remained friendly for most part, the relationship never was an area of priority for both the countries. The central theme was always the presence of people of Indian origin and never business opportunities and bilateral trade.

The fact that Modi is the first Indian PM to visit the country after Indira Gandhi in 1981 is an indicator of the current status of the relationship.

There were instances when the ties were strained like during the period of turmoil after the military coup in 1987. The Indian envoy was expelled from Fiji and the high commission shut. They were restored in 1999, but again lost momentum in the year 2000 when Mahendra Chaudhry, Fiji's first PM of Indian origin, was thrown out of office in a coup.

Later, Fiji's struggle with democracy meant India never warmed up to a nation that could have played an important role in spreading its sphere of influence.

Modi's victory in May and the transition of Admiral JV Bainimarama from a military ruler to a democratically elected leader, though unrelated events, provide the right atmosphere to reset ties between the two countries.

And the fact that Bainimarama was among the first foreign leaders to congratulate Modi on his victory and invite him to the Fiji – and Modi honouring the invite - indicates a budding relationship between the two leaders.

Fiji has much to gain and is keen to engage India as a catalyst for its growth, especially in areas like agriculture, infrastructure and IT.

More importantly, Modi's visit comes a huge morale booster for Fijians of Indian origin, who constitute 37% of the country's population. Fijian Indians had it rough for a while in their adopted country. The coups in 1987 and 2002 were seen as attempts by ethnic Fijians to keen the economically dominant Indians out of power.

Things are looking up once again for the community and the nation as a whole after the peaceful transition to democracy.

Australia and New Zealand may have had played a pivotal in shaping Fiji's world view but other world powers like the US are now clamouring to exert influence.

Undoubtedly, Fiji is the most important country in the south Pacific and nurtures the ambition to be regarded as a regional leader. In this context the hype over the visits is understandable.

On its part, India should have no qualms in accepting Fiji as the leading voice from Oceania and play a constructive role in its development.

However, the importance of Modi's visit goes further than the excitement it has generated and the symbolisms like PM Modi's address to the Fijian Parliament.

The ocean club of nations forms an important group in the United Nations and have the same voting rights as any big country. They can make or break international legislations and they are known to act as block to safeguard their interests at the world stage, like during climate talks.

China too understands the importance of Fiji, a nation that holds a special position in its eyes as the first country to establish diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China in 1975.

Over the years, China has given generous grants and supported infrastructure projects like roads and low-cost housing in Fiji.

The dragon has spread its wings in other Pacific countries as well and maintains deep strategic engagement and economic ties. However, the friendly relationship between Pacific countries and Taiwan has been an irritant given China's anxiety over deviance from the “one China policy”.

Modi has a big task at hand as he attempts to establish India's influence. While monetary aid will help but what can work more is pitching India as a growing world power that can act as a strategic counterweight to China and other influential blocks of nations.

One issue that would be part of the agenda during the talks is the issue of climate change. For the Pacific islanders growing sea level is an existential threat and they see India and China as part of the problem.

The Himalayan neighbours may be fighting for the same strategic space and are competitors but they are also seen as countries that are on the same side when it comes to taking responsibility for the climate mess.

China moved a step ahead on the issue, last week, and agreed, for the first time, to stop increases in its emissions by around 2030.

Notwithstanding its genuine concerns on the adverse impact of such a deal on its growth momentum, India would find itself under pressure from the Pacific countries to make similar commitments.

Modi has much to accomplish and many challenges to face as he attempts to navigate India's ties with the region to a position of strength.