The Potential of the Pearls: cooperation in the South Pacific
Asha Sundaramurthy, Jawaharlal Nehru University
There is substantial potential for Australia and India to both broaden the economic aspects of their bilateral relationship and capitalise on a wide range of opportunities for strategic convergence in the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia.
But perhaps less appreciated is the increasing relevance of the South Pacific region within the wider Indo-Pacific, and the untapped potential for Australia and India to cooperate on their engagement with the South Pacific.
India’s own engagement with Pacific Island Countries has grown considerably since 2014 in areas such as maritime security cooperation, sustainable development, climate change adaptation, clean energy technology transfers, development aid, humanitarian and disaster relief, disease response and control, and pharmaceuticals. During India’s meeting with the Pacific Small Island Developing States grouping in New York in 2019, India allocated US$12 million to the region, with US$1 million for each country in funding for developmental projects. India also provided an additional US$150 million in lines of credit for climate related projects, renewable energy, and adaptation mechanisms.
Australia meanwhile has deep family kinship with the South Pacific. In a signal of Australia’s renewed focus on the region, new Foreign Minister Penny Wong made four visits to the South Pacific since the Australian Labor Party secured government at the May 2022 election, announcing a slew of projects in energy, resources, aid, climate change prerogatives, maritime security and COVID recovery.
Despite the presence of multiple players in the region, Australia has remained the South Pacific’s chief provider in terms of supplying aid, markets for exports, military forces, and regional stability.
There have been two prevailing schools of thought about the potential for Australia-India cooperation in the South Pacific. The first proposes that India build bilateral relations directly with South Pacific island countries rather than pursuing trilateral associations with Australia or New Zealand. This advice was sound when Indian engagement with the region was at a nascent stage and it was more prudent to begin initial engagement on independent terms. However, with growing Indian engagement in the region and budding Australia-India ties, there are now more incentives for India to take a more collaborative approach to the region.
The second perspective has argued in favour of collaboration, asserting that trilateral aid cooperation is beneficial in better piloting the aid flow and achieving productive outcomes.
While Australia already has existing paradigms of cooperation with traditional donors, engagement with India as an emerging donor would provide opportunities in areas of mutual interest in the region. It is also an opportune time for Australia and India to be establishing such trilateral frameworks given the high level of political will on both sides to advance the relationship.
Both countries are strategically aligned when it comes to the Indian Ocean Region, Southeast Asia, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, and the nature of the Indo-Pacific order – namely to ensure these regions are stable and open, free, inclusive, and with relations based on international rules and norms. While this strategic congruence has existed for the last decade, the momentum of the relationship has accelerated in recent years as great power rivalry (namely China and the US) has increased the stakes of Australia India cooperation.
Australia’s intricate knowledge of the region can provide valuable feedback for India’s own engagement with Pacific Island Countries while Australia stands to benefit in the South Pacific from better information-sharing with India. By working collaboratively both countries can orientate their regional engagement while being mindful of each other’s sensibilities.
While India’s engagement with the South Pacific would continue independently, a separate combined approach with Australia is timely given the two countries’ converging perspectives on regional stability in the broader Indo-Pacific, and mutually improved maritime capabilities in their own upgraded bilateral relationship.
There are evident areas of continued cooperation: climate change adaptation, maritime security, and infrastructure assistance. However, there are also areas where Australia and India are uniquely placed to add value in the South Pacific. These include:
- The Blue Economy (the sustainable development of these island country’s ocean resources). This would include issues around fisheries maintenance, governance, tourism, aid flows, water security and market strategies.
- Critical minerals collaboration. For example, given South Pacific Island Countries have expansive Economic Exclusion Zones, there is the potential for them to tap into Australia and India’s capabilities in deep sea mineral exploration to better understand the extent of their potential mineral resources.
- The Fiji factor. Fiji is a crucial player in the region and trilateral engagement with Australia and India would help promote cooperation across the South Pacific.
As primary players of the Indo-Pacific with wellcultivated maritime capabilities, Australia and India are well-placed to cooperate on their engagement with Pacific Island Countries, including in the South Pacific. This is even more important when the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed capability-gaps in these smaller states, highlighting the need for reliable partners.
In a mutually beneficial framework, the South Pacific region has the potential to improve on its existing bilateral relationships with larger neighbours to create a more collaborative model of engagement that can help to better build regional capabilities across various sectors and reduce its aid dependency on any single state.
While separate individual engagement with the South Pacific has its own relevant dividends for Australia and India, a combined approach in fulfilling common interests in the region would provide added capability, credibility, and bilateral affinity.
The issue of bilateral affinity is particularly important given the as yet unrealised potential of Australia-India collaboration. Creating avenues and opportunities for regional collaboration, such has been done in the Indian Ocean region, can also be replicated in the Pacific Island region.
Asha Sundaramurthy submitted her PhD in March 2022 on Australia-India relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Previously a Visiting Fellow with the Australia-India Institute, her current area of research focus is on Australia-India ties and Oceania. She has written academic articles on different areas of the Indo-Pacific, ranging from the China factor in Australia-India ties, Australia-Nepal ties, Australia and the One China Policy, maritime delimitation in India-Indonesia relations, India’s engagement in the Pacific Island states, political thinkers in Myanmar as well as commentaries on various issues in the Indo-Pacific region.
This article was originally published in ‘Innovation, security, culture: the next 75 years of Australia-India relations’ an edited volume developed in partnership with the PerthUSAsia Centre in August 2022.