Why Modi's Papua New Guinea visit is a message to China

Reaching out to the islands is part of India's Act East policy

PTI05_22_2023_000056B Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Papua New Guinea PM James Marape launches a translation of the Tamil classic Thirukkural in the Tok Pisin language of Papua New Guinea, in Port Moresby | PTI

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi stepped off his aircraft in Papua New Guinea on Monday, his counterpart James Marape bent down to touch his feet. It was Modi’s first visit to the island country.

Hours later, he was honoured with the highest civilian award—the Grand Companion of the Order of the Logohu. Very few non-residents of Papua New Guinea have been conferred this award. Prime Minister Modi was also conferred The Companion of the Order of Fiji—the highest award from Fiji.

“The world has gone through a difficult period of Covid pandemic and many other challenges,’’ Modi said in his opening remarks at the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) summit. “The impact of these challenges has been felt most by the countries of the Global South. Climate change, natural disasters, hunger, poverty, and various health-related challenges were already prevalent. Now, new issues are emerging. Barriers are arising in the supply chains of food, fuel, fertiliser, and pharmaceuticals,” he added.

The third edition of FIPIC comes at a time when India’s relationship with China is “not normal’’. China has continued to heat up the situation—diplomatically as well as militarily. The FIPIC summit is very much a message to China that India is fighting back. Unlike China, India is focusing on friendship rather than economic equations.

This tiny island nation—known for its beaches and snorkelling—very much sits at the centre of the battle between China and the US. The bride that everyone wants—Papua New Guinea—is not only playing host to the summit but has also signed on a defence and maritime surveillance agreement with the US. The agreement, as the US secretary of State Anthony Blinken put it, was signed between “equal and sovereign partners’’.

The meeting of the 14 members of the Pacific Islands forum andIndia comes on the heels of the Quad summit hastily called together in Hiroshima as US President Joe Biden had to miss the Australia summit. It was clear from the joint statement where the four leaders reaffirmed their “steadfast commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific that is inclusive and resilient’’ that the elephant in the room was China.

For India, the reach out to the islands is part of the Act East policy. And in an effort to demonstrate the strength of being a true friend, especially at the time of need, India has chosen to focus on building capacity in the region, especially in the sphere of health. “To boost healthcare in the Pacific region, we have decided to establish a super-specialty cardiology hospital in Fiji,’’ said Modi. “This hospital will be equipped with trained staff, modern facilities, and infrastructure, and it will serve as a lifeline for the entire region. The Indian government will bear the full cost of this mega greenfield project.’’

India will provide sea ambulances to the 14 countries. Dialysis units will also be set up,and a Jaipur foot camp will be organised in Papua New Guinea next year. But going beyond, India is also hoping to forge strong bonds through medicine. “I propose bringing similar Jan Aushadhi centres to your countries,’’ said Modi. This will enable the 14 Pacific Islands to access “more than 1,800 high-quality generic medicines’’ at affordable rates, he said.

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