Why did PM Modi visit Papua New Guinea? A small island nation never visited before by any Indian PM

Why did PM Modi visit Papua New Guinea? A small island nation never visited before by any Indian PM

The purpose of the visit was to strengthen India's engagement with Pacific Island countries, with the objective of addressing China's expanding influence in the region.

FPJ Web DeskUpdated: Monday, May 22, 2023, 05:29 PM IST
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Prime Minister Modi with Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister James Marape |

After completing his visit to Papua New Guinea, where he co-hosted the inaugural FIPIC summit and engaged with leaders from Pacific Island nations to enhance bilateral relations, Prime Minister Narendra Modi embarked on the third and final leg of his three-nation tour, heading towards Australia on May 22.

"I thank PM James Marape for the warm welcome accorded. Now leaving for Australia to take part in various programmes in Sydney," Prime Minister Modi tweeted.

"My Papua New Guinea visit has been a historic one. I will greatly cherish the affection received among the people of this wonderful nation. I also had the opportunity to interact with respected FIPIC leaders and discuss ways to deepen ties with their respective nations," he tweeted.

With a vast expanse of 785,753 km², New Guinea stands as the second-largest island globally. Situated in the southwestern Pacific Ocean within Oceania, it is geographically separated from Australia by the Torres Strait, spanning a width of 150 kilometers. Despite this separation, both landmasses rest upon the same continental shelf.

From India's capital Delhi, the island country is 8,129 kms away.

Modi in Papua New Guinea

During his visit to Papua New Guinea, Prime Minister Narendra Modi engaged in discussions with his counterpart, James Marape, to assess the status of their bilateral relations. They explored avenues to enhance collaboration in areas such as trade, technology, healthcare, and climate change.

Furthermore, both leaders jointly hosted the Summit for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) summit on Monday, fostering regional cooperation among participating nations.

At the summit, Prime Minister Modi conveyed to the Pacific island nations that India can be relied upon as a steadfast development partner. India respects their priorities, and its approach to cooperation is grounded in human values.

"India respects your priorities. We are proud to be your development partner — be it humanitarian aid or your development, you can see India as a reliable partner. Our approach is based on human values," PM Modi said.

But why is PM Modi and the Ministry of External Affairs making so much noise about a visit to a small island country? Let's discuss in this article.

India's 'Act East' Policy

India's involvement with the 14 Pacific Island Countries (PICs) is an integral component of New Delhi's Act East Policy. The purpose of the visit was to strengthen India's engagement with Pacific Island countries, with the objective of addressing China's expanding influence in the region.

This inaugural visit by an Indian prime minister to the largest Pacific Island nation coincides with New Delhi's heightened cooperation with countries like the United States, Japan, and Australia in the Indo-Pacific region. These collaborations have become more significant for India as its tensions with Beijing have increased.

Taking place after an eight-year gap since India's previous hosting of the summit in 2015, this recent Summit hosted by PM Modi along with his Papua New Guinea counterpart has the potential to provide renewed impetus to New Delhi's endeavors to establish a foothold in Pacific Island nations. Although India initiated its outreach efforts in 2014, progress has been sluggish thus far.

Why do countries like Papua New Guinea matter?

Regarding Papua New Guinea in the context of India, it can be observed that these locations hold significant strategic value for establishing naval bases, friendly ports, and airstrips. Additionally, they possess extensive oceanic resources, further adding to their importance.

One of the primary concerns for both Western countries and India revolves around the presence of voids within several nations. The worry stems from the observation that China has a tendency to seize such opportunities and swiftly occupy those voids, effectively establishing its influence and control. This trend has raised alarm bells as it signifies the potential expansion of China's power and influence in these regions. Both Western nations and India recognise the strategic significance of preventing China from filling these voids and are actively engaged in efforts to counterbalance China's influence and maintain stability in the affected areas.

Papua New Guinea holds particular importance within the Pacific Island countries. With a population of 9.5 million, it is the largest island in the region and maintains enduring ties and a trade partnership with India, setting it apart from others. Additionally, Papua New Guinea hosts a small Indian community of approximately 3,000 individuals.

What can India and West offer to Papua New Guinea?

One crucial challenge faced by Papua New Guinea is climate change and the need for adaptation measures. In this regard, India can contribute significantly by offering affordable partnerships, particularly in areas such as solar energy.

Although a resource-rich country, almost 40 percent of Papua New Guinea's (PNG) population lives in poverty. India, as well Western allies, can ramp up their grants-in-aid to the country.

Papua New Guinea is located within the "Ring of Fire," making it susceptible to earthquakes caused by fault lines. This expansive fault-line, stretching over 40,000 kilometers from the Cocos and Nazca in the Philippine Sea Plate to the Pacific Plate, is considered the world's longest. The region surrounding the "ring" is dotted with numerous volcanoes, and tremors are frequent in these areas. Hence, experiencing tremors at any given time is a common phenomenon in proximity to the "ring."

In that context, India actively participates in the establishment of an international order by serving as a constructive contributor. It achieves this by sharing its developmental experiences with partner countries in the Global South, engaging in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. Additionally, initiatives like the International Solar Alliance (ISA) and the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI) exemplify India's commitment. Furthermore, India acts as a first responder through various initiatives and assumes the role of a net security provider within its diplomatic sphere.

Apart from climate change, Papua New Guinea aims to transition its economy from exporting raw materials like natural gas and minerals to finished products, indicating a potential area where India and Western countries can provide expertise and support.

Given concerns over China's increasing military and economic influence in the region, Papua New Guinea has become a focal point for the United States and its allies. This interest is evident through visits from high-level officials, including Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2018. Notably, U.S. President Joe Biden had planned to visit Papua New Guinea on May 22, but the visit was canceled to prioritize discussions on the debt limit in Washington.

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