One of the most important external examples of the potential for India’s realignment of global leadership will be PM Modi’s ground-breaking trip to Papua New Guinea (PNG), reported to take place in the first half of 2023.
Alexandria, Va.: For those watching China, 2023 is a year of danger.
From the point of view of Beijing, it might be a good year to make a major move. The PLA, and especially the Navy, is growing, arming and flexing. Meanwhile the United States is perceived as weakened and distracted, Australian Prime Minister Albanese seems to want to mend relations with China (as does Germany), Europe is caught up in Ukraine, Taiwan has yet to get its one year of military service up and running (and its military remains under-armed and under-trained), and the Japanese seem serious about defending against China but have a way to go before becoming fully effective. It’s a dangerous situation.
But, at the same time, for those watching India, 2023 is a year of hope. Countries around the world feel squeezed between perceived PRC aggression and Western confusion. As they try to resurrect after Covid lockdowns devastated their economies and the war in Ukraine contributed to energy and food price inflation, many leaders are looking at their beleaguered fellow citizens and wondering “what now?”
THE ONLY CHOICES?
Some leaders, as with Prime Minister Sogavare in Solomon Islands, have already thrown in their lot with Beijing, leading them down the path to an authoritarianism that is resulting in their being willing to go to war with their own people (with PRC backing). And so, the Chinese Communist Party model metastasizes.
Others are trying to work with Western countries, but some—especially smaller ones—see themselves as being used as pawns in the games of larger partners. Ask the opposition leaders in Solomons—who have been trying to work with Australia for years—what they think when they see Australian Prime Minister Albanese cozying up to Beijing and its proxy Sogavare, and refusing to even meet with them.
Which is why a reengaged India offers a new hope—not as leader of a non-aligned world, but of a realigned world.
FROM NON-ALIGNMENT TO REALIGNMENT
As seen by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s goals for the G-20 Presidency, India seeks to show the world by example how a democratic, pluralistic, economically dynamic country, with a large rural population, in a geopolitical complicated neighbourhood, can not only survive, but thrive, with its humanity intact.
Yes, India has challenges, but it is largely transparent about them, trusting that its systems will be robust enough over time to improve the lives of its citizens as it strives for, yes, a more perfect union.
These used to be features that the West claimed as its own. But the legitimacy of Western leadership has taken hit after hit, including: the 2007-2008 financial crisis (financial legitimacy); Afghanistan withdrawal (strategic legitimacy); management of Covid response, including censorship of Indian scientists (scientific legitimacy); narrative control (media legitimacy); and culture wars (moral legitimacy).
The West is far from finished, but it is diminished. It has a lot of work to do, especially as it tries to heal self-inflicted wounds while being targeted by unrelenting CCP political warfare designed to weaken it further.
And so, for many smaller and medium sized non-Western countries, there is urgent need for another option, for realignment. Those leaders and citizens who believe in (and are willing to fight for) democracy, a free press, the right to practice their faith, to start a business, to study as they want, are looking for allies. And one country they want to learn more about is India.
THE POTENTIAL INDIA
India is one of the few major countries that, in places like the Pacific Islands, can give China a run for its money—literally. Unlike the other three Quad members, India is much more economically compatible with the developing economies of the region. It has pioneered village-scale economies, low cost yet reliable and robust technologies, affordable pharmaceuticals, medical care, renewable energy systems, and tertiary education—and all of it largely available in English. India also has highly trained personnel accustomed to working in difficult conditions that require adaptability and improvisation.
Indian engagement has the potential to transform local economies and displace predatory and parasitic PRC entrenchment.
INDIAN CHALLENGE IN SOLOMONS
And the Chinese know it. That is why they used their proxies in Solomons to try to delay the arrival of the Indian High Commissioner to Solomons, H.E. Shri Inbasekar Sunaramuthi, for as long as possible. Not that the Australians helped break the logjam. Those in Canberra who don’t understand the severity of the PRC threat aren’t keen on the region having more options (those who do welcome more engagement by their democratic partner).
When the High Commissioner was finally let in, he quietly went to work building business linkages, meeting with a wide range of civil society leaders, and getting of sense of what was needed.
The visit was very well received by non-PRC-proxies (the majority of the population) in Solomons. Respected Parliamentarian Hon. Peter Kenilorea Jr. summed it up when he said Solomons needs: “Increased people-to-people connections with likeminded countries. For example, education and availability of scholarships, both academic and sports. And study visits for both national, provincial level leaders and business leaders. Yes US, but India would be great as well. We lack capacity in tertiary education, and students might want to take courses that aren’t available here. The pivot towards India is something I personally would like us to move towards. I think India has a lot to offer.”
FROM G-20 TO THE PICS
While G-20 meetings within India will showcase the country’s domestic strengths, one of the most interesting and important external examples of the potential for India’s realignment of global leadership will be Prime Minister Modi’s ground-breaking trip to Papua New Guinea (PNG), reported to take place in the first half of 2023.
It is difficult to understate how important this trip might be to the region. PNG is the largest of the Pacific Island Countries (PICs) by population and landmass. It has more people and more land than New Zealand, is strategically located, contains v ast natural resources, and is in desperate need of economic opportunities and educational and health care development.
It is a perfect candidate for testing the potential for “Indian realignment”.
Prime Minister Modi will be the first Indian Prime Minister to visit the country. He started building India’s profile in the PICs with his visit to Fiji in 2014, during which he announced a range of initiatives, including the much-appreciated e-visa option for PIC visitors to India (by contrast PIC visitors to Australia and New Zealand have to go through a costly and sometimes humiliating process—familiar to many Indians—to apply for entry).
Then there was a Forum for India-Pacific Islands cooperation meeting in Jaipur in 2015. After that, there was little movement. One of the problems was there was little awareness in the bureaucracies in India about the region, and the governments of the PICs are small and overstretched, so finding time and funding for exploratory missions to India was not viable unless there seemed real interest.
One country that bucked that trend was PNG. There is a resident Indian mission in PNG (that also covers other PICs) and, importantly, PNG opened a mission in Delhi in 2006. That helped.
What also helped revive the process was India being willing to go to the region, meeting them where they live. In December 2022, there were Foreign Office Consultation between India and PNG in the PNG capital Port Moresby. One of the things discussed was the potential for co-hosting the next FIPIC in PNG. If that happens, it will be a strong signal to the region that India is ready to work with the PICs in a “grounded” manner.
So, 2023 has the potential to begin a realignment in the PICs, that could then act as proof of concept more broadly.
What would be needed to really make it work? Here are ten ideas:
1. Establish direct flights between India and the Pacific Islands, bypassing the need for citizens to go through Australia and New Zealand and their restrictive visas regimes.
2. Set up an Oceania House in Delhi so Pacific Island Countries that can’t afford to set up their own High Commissions can post representatives in India.
3. Broaden Indian diplomatic representation in the PICs. If a full High Commission isn’t viable, establish a network of Honorary Consuls so every PIC is covered.
4. As with India, PIC cultures value family, faith and freedom (and good food). Broaden cultural exchanges, perhaps through the establishment of India Houses in each PIC that could, for example, facilitate access to Indian media for local broadcast (something PM Modi originally mentioned in Fiji). Also work with Indian TV and movie producers to film in the PICs, training local talent, and building awareness and tourism ties.
5. Bring representatives from Indian educational institutions to the PICs to raise awareness of the quality, affordability and safety of Indian education. Also consider setting up campuses in the PICs.
6. Set up working groups to develop lasting treatment solutions for specific health concerns in the PICs, for example, diabetes.
7. Understand India’s relationship with Fiji is unique, and diaspora-based (the 12th World Hindi Conference will be in Fiji in February 2023). But that working with the region through Fiji makes it seems as through India wants to work with people that just look similar, rather than people who have similar values.
8. Where appropriate, work with the PICs on intelligence sharing. Currently many are victims of major Chinese organized crime networks, and Western intelligence organizations do little to help them protect themselves. This could also incorporate training on the identification and countering of PRC political warfare operations—something India has taken the lead on as seen, for example, by the banning of TikTok and WeChat.
9. Where welcome, work together on institution building, including Chambers of Commerce and think tanks that can facilitate exchanges, including in areas of strategic concern.
10. Consider working with Indian states that have similar physical environments, such as Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to set up joint research institutes into key sectors, such as fisheries, tropical disease, environmental security, water and agriculture.
Capitals around the world will be closely watching Prime Minister Modi’s visit to PNG. Many, including Beijing, will hope the visit fails to make a difference. But even more, including all over the PICs, will be looking for signs that 2023 is a year not of danger but of hope.