Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to the Pacific island Papua New Guinea grabbed media attention when its Prime Minister James Marape bent to touch Modi’s feet in an unusual expression of reverence. Marape’s gesture signifies India’s growing clout among the Pacific Island Countries (PIC).

The PICs include Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Niue, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

India’s entry into the PIC region is driven by three factors: First, its Look East and Act East policy; Second, the need to the check growing Chinese footprint in the PIC; Third, which is perhaps the most important, is the future exploitation of the humongous land and seabed wealth of the islands.

According to an estimated 8.9 billion tons of nodules lie strewn around the Pacific Ocean floor. These deposits are worth an estimated Australian dollars 14.4 trillion. These nodules are so rich in the four essential metals needed for batteries (cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese) that they are often called “a battery in a rock”.

Besides, in Papua New Guinea and Fiji, there are vast undeveloped copper reserves. Building low-carbon energy systems to power a low-carbon economy will require vast amounts of minerals and metals for new technologies and energy infrastructure, website says.

Further, Papua New Guinea is considering enormous new gold and copper mines. The Cook Islands granted three licences to explore for poly-metallic nodules in the seas to which they have exclusive economic rights.

India began ground work for its entry into the PICs in 2014, when it established the “Forum for India-Pacific Islands cooperation” (FIPIC). The FIPIC includes India, Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Niue, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

India already has a strong foothold in Fiji, in which people of Indian origin are 40% of the population. Not so long ago, its Prime Minister was an ethnic Indian, Mahendra Chaudhary. Papua New Guinea has more than 3000 Indians.

According to available literature, since 2015, India has been engaged in creating technical capacity in the PICs in the fields of natural disasters, solar energy, electrification, housing, Information Technology, tele-medicine and tele-education. India also announced the opening of a space research and satellite monitoring station on the Fiji Islands which will provide it with an independent satellite tracking capacity. India will assist establishment of a Space Technology Applications Centre in one of the PICs.

In September 2019, Modi announced US$12 million grant (US$ 1 million to each PIC) towards the implementation of high impact developmental projects in the area of their choice. This is in addition to a concessional Line of Credit of US$150 million for solar, renewable energy and climate-related projects based on the PIC’s requirements, stated Pragya Pandey in a piece in ‘The Diplomatist’.

Modi has emphasised that “development policies need to be inclusive and sustainable to reduce inequality and contribute to the empowerment of people,” thus contrasting Indian aid with Chinese aid which is not people-oriented and not based on the best interests of the locals.

According to Pandey, Modi had announced a Special Adaptation Fund of US$ 1 million to provide technical assistance and training for capacity building. There was also a significant increase in India’s grant-in-aid to the PICs from US$125,000 to US$200,000.

Since generic drugs are very expensive in the PICs because they are routed through third countries, India has offered to set up a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant and distribution centres in the region with a Line of Credit.

India is supporting the development of micro, small and medium enterprises and increasing productivity of rice and sugarcane. India also wants to improve market access for the products of these countries.

To augment trade relations with India, a Trade Office at the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) in Delhi was announced. Indian visa-on-arrival was announced to promote greater people to people contacts.

Importantly, India hopes to push for greater cooperation with the PICs in sectors like oil and natural gas, mining, IT, healthcare, fishing and marine research and other areas.

India aims to play a major role in tackling problems created by climate change, a particular area of concern in the PICs. An ‘India-Pacific Islands Sustainable Development Conference’, was also organised in Suva, Fiji from 25-26 May 2017. The themes discussed included the blue economy, adaptation-mitigation practices for climate change, disaster preparedness and health.

In September 2017, India launched Climate Early Warning Systems in seven PICs. India has regularly provided assistance in these counties to deal with consequences of frequent cyclones. A relief and rehabilitation grant was provided when the tropical cyclone Hola hit Vanuatu in 2018.

Since the Pacific Ocean is important for international trade and India is part of the Indo-Pacific security architecture ‘Quad’ along with Japan, US and Australia, there is an awareness of China’s growing clout in the PICs.

The 2022 Lowy Institute Pacific Aid Map provides details about Chinese aid in the region. According to that, China provided a total of nearly US$ 3.148 billion to the Pacific between 2008 and 2020.

Beijing has funded more than 100 aid projects in the region, donated more than 200 batches of in-kind support, and trained about 10,000 local professionals since the 1970s.

Chinese aid pledges to Solomon Islands are prominent. In addition to the US$ 53 million national sports stadium, China set up a comprehensive medical centre at the National Referral Hospital and 161 mobile phone towers (US$66 million) according to

In 2022, Solomon Islands signed a security pact with China, sparking international concern over the possibility of Beijing building its first military base in the region ‘The Guardian’ reported. In response, the US ramped up its Pacific diplomacy.

The United States reopened an embassy in Solomon Islands after a 30 year hiatus. Australia has also become active overtaking China as the “leading source of bilateral loans to the Pacific,” in 2022.

But, writing for the ‘Lowy Institute’, Denghua Zhang says that China is still a principal donor for the PICs. It is also strengthening its military heft in the region. Chinese state-owned enterprises delivered relief supplies to Tonga in the wake of a volcanic eruption and tsunami disaster that hit the country in January 2022.

Nevertheless, the Chinese have begun to face some problems. Lowy Institute says that “Pacific scholars, university students and non-government organisations have concerns about the debt risks, environmental impact and inadequate local benefits of Chinese aid projects. The majority of surveyed university students in Papua New Guinea and Fiji would oppose more Chinese aid to their countries if they became leaders in the future.” But this impression is being corrected by China, Lowy adds.

Beijing has said that it will deepen cooperation with the PIC via six new platforms: agriculture, climate action, poverty reduction, disaster preparedness, and emergency supplies.

China is making efforts to tackle the aid transparency issue. In January 2022, the China International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA) organised online training of Chinese companies and social organisations on the use of an aid reporting portal. China is also working to meet the challenge posed by the US’ “Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity.”