PM Modi's Japan, Papua New Guinea and Australia visit: Keeping focus on larger interests in Indo-Pacific
PM Modi’s visit to Japan, Papua New Guinea and Australia had at least four critical objectives and it did not matter if the US, one of the crucial players of the QUAD, could not make it to Sydney for a Leaders Meeting.
First, a special invitee at the table of the Group of 7 where as the President of the Group of 20, India and Modi have added relevance to the so-called Rich Man’s Club; at the very least Modi must have added some heft to the Voice of the Global South on such issues as environment, climate change and health care, to mention just three.
Second, the Hiroshima Summit of the G-7 has meant that the Indian leader has had the opportunity for several bilateral meetings principally with the host Japan, a country that has in recent years added its muscle in the Indo Pacific in a variety of ways besides showing keen interest in furthering a multi-faceted relationship with India.
Third, Modi’s visit to Papua Guinea has most definitely to be seen beyond symbolism and atmospherics to New Delhi’s keen interest in pursuing a relationship with that country given its strategic place in the Indo-Pacific and in an area where New Delhi’s adversaries may be only too eager to cast their net. The fact that people of Indian origin may number around 4000 did not take away the warmth of a diaspora that is keen on keeping connections open.
Fourth, in spite of the postponement of the Quad summit in Sydney, Modi was determined to keep his date with Australia, a nation that has clearly emerged as one of the principals in the Indo-Pacific and a partner to have in enforcing international rules of the game pertaining to trade and navigation. Canberra, of late, has shown a keen interest and willingness to take on Beijing’s increased assertiveness in the area quietly reminding the East Asian giant that the Indo Pacific is not an area for a free ride.
Seen in any perspective, Modi's visit to Japan, Papua New Guinea and Australia should have the element of satisfaction that the Indian leader achieved what he had set out to do, if not more. Modi was under no illusion of the environment in Hiroshima at the G-7 table--- Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine and sanctions, sanctions, and more sanctions against Russia. But both at the G7 and in the Quad sideshow, India held to its long-standing policy of dialogue, diplomacy and in the accent of adhering to basic tenets of international law, rejecting unilateralism.
In different ways the joint statement of the G-7 and the Quad had clear messages to both Russia and China; whether Moscow and Beijing read the messages is a different story. To Volodymyr Zelensky, Prime Minister Modi maintained once again that while’s assistance in ending the horrific war is always there, the path is via dialogue and diplomacy. And for all those who had been critical of New Delhi’s “sitting on the fence” attitude, there was this not too subtle reminder that long ago Modi had said “this is not an era of wars.” In ways more than one Modi had reminded the global audience that it indeed takes two hands to clap.
Apart from Australia where India has forged a meaningful relationship covering strategic and economic components not to mention the positive inputs from the huge diaspora in a variety of fields, perhaps a critical phase of Modi’s three nation visit was to Papua New Guinea, a part of the world that India has been trying quite hard to nurture relations and quite specifically meeting the challenges of China.
The Third Summit of the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation hosted by Modi and James Marape is being held after a lapse of eight years but does signal to the group that includes some 14 Pacific Islands of the common challenges ahead.
From a strategic perspective to India and other members of the Quad especially it is necessary to have the opportunity at least for a friendly port of call in a potentially unfriendly neighborhood where smaller Pacific countries see the prospect of ‘easy money now, get strangled later’ policy of China, now fashionably coined “economic coercion.”
The big disappointment for the Indo-Pacific has been that American President Joe Biden was unable to visit Port Moresby and Australia. That the Quad meeting scheduled for Sydney was rearranged in Hiroshima and a new date for the Australia visit will be set is beside the point.
Almost everyone understands the domestic compulsions of President Biden; still there was this nagging feeling that the White House could have “somehow” managed his domestic negotiations on debt relief. Worse, that Biden could keep his appointment with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida but not with Prime Ministers James Marape and Antony Albanese.
Prime Minister Modi and his foreign policy team have shown that India will continue to keep a sharp focus on the Indo-Pacific. And over time there has also been this realization in the Indo- Pacific that commitment and credibility cannot be in fits and starts, an issue that has constantly been of nagging concern of the United States.
Not many remember John Hay, the American Secretary of State between 1898 and 1905, who said more than a century ago, “The Mediterranean is the ocean of the past, the Atlantic the ocean of the present and the Pacific, the ocean of the future”.
***The writer was a senior journalist in Washington DC covering North America and the UN; views expressed are his personal