India-Cook Islands diplomatic realignment refreshes South Pacific engagement

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India’s High Commissioner to New Zealand and Samoa and High Commissioner-Designate to the Cook Islands with Prime Minister Mark Brown during his visit to New Zealand in March 2021 (Photo Supplied)

Long Read
Venkat Raman
Auckland, November 19, 2021

India has demonstrated yet again its strategic thinking by appointing its High Commissioner and Plenipotentiary to New Zealand Muktesh Pardeshi as concurrent, Non-Resident High Commissioner and Plenipotentiary to the Cook Islands, bringing the tiny South Pacific Nation under the diplomatic purview of its Mission in Wellington.

The appointment was announced by the Indian government on November 8, 2021.

Geographic and administrative relevance

Relations between India and Cook Islands were managed by the Indian High Commission in Suva since 1999 and the shift to New Zealand not only underscores the long-term vision of India’s foreign policy but also makes geographic and administrative relevance and sense.

Cook Islands come under the realm of New Zealand and its citizens are deemed citizens of this country, in addition to enjoying the status as Cook Islands nationality, a status not given to other New Zealand citizens.

About Cook Islands

Cook Islands is a country in ‘Free Association’ with New Zealand, with full authority to create  its own laws. The country consists of 15 small islands, with a population of 17,459 (Census 2016) within an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 1,800,000 square kilometres of ocean. The population has declined by 2% since 2011 (the previous population census). The New Zealand dollar is legal tender in Cook Islands. Monetary union with New Zealand has provided monetary and external financial stability.

The Cook Islands economy is highly dependent on tourism. Main source countries include New Zealand and Australia, but arrivals have diversified recently to Europe and North America. The Cook Islands has also sought to diversify its sources of economic activity through the establishment of an international financial services industry (especially for international trusts), and also receives revenue from fishing licenses.

Cook Islands is a member of the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations Plus (CERP) popularly as ‘Pacer Plus, which came into force on December 13, 2020, marking an important chapter in trade relations between New Zealand and the ten other member countries in the Pacific region.

New Zealand is responsible for the defence and foreign affairs of the Cook Islands (through a process of consultation) although, in recent years, Avarua (Capital City) has been inclined to manage its own foreign policy, like other members of the Pacific Islands Forum.

Some of the leaders at the Pacific Islands Forum Summit held in Tuvalu on August 15, 2019 (Forum Secretariat/Pool Photo)

The ‘New Zealand Connection’ should therefore be seen as a natural extension of New Delhi’s engagement with the South Pacific and expectation of a larger role in the Forum.

India is a Dialogue Partner of the Pacific Islands Forum but has since long expressed a desire to become at least an Associate Member since the existing status accords it only observer status. All Member-States of the Forum have strong, cordial relations with India and most of them are beneficiaries of New Delhi’s grants-in-aid and in recent times, millions of doses of its locally made AstraZeneca PLC Vaccine to fight Covid-19.

Forum in trouble

The Forum is now in trouble with Nauru, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia initiating a formal process of withdrawal from its membership.

This occurred at the Virtual Summit of the Forum held on February 9, 2021. The move is reportedly over the appointment of former Cooks Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna as Secretary General. He won a ballot but the Micronesian leaders claimed that the election broker a ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement.’

These States affirmed their decision to quit again in a statement issued by Kiribati and others on August 26, 2021. Mr Puna, Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister James Marpe and others requesting them to reconsider their decision.

As member-countries of this regional bloc continues to squabble, its member countries need stronger bilateral relations with well-meaning nations and India offers an excellent opportunity.

Forum of India-Pacific Islands Cooperation

Mr Pardeshi said that the establishment of the India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) in 2014 (the year Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister of India following the sweeping victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the general elections) was a turning point in the Indo-Pacific relations. As well as offering a grant-in-aid of US$ 125,000 to each of the 14 Pacific Island Nations, the federal government in New Delhi facilitated economic and trade cooperation and support. With its office in New Delhi, FIPIC has supported many small and medium enterprises in the Pacific Island Forum countries, he said.

Mr Modi chaired the first Summit of FIPIC during his visit to Fiji in November 2014.

The second Summit was held in Jaipur, India in August 2015.

“India has offered assistance to major projects in the 14 Member-States of FIPIC. The Projects offered include the setting up of a US$ 1 million fund for adapting to climate change and energy, establishing a trade office in India, Pan-Pacific Islands e-network to improve digital connectivity and extending visas on arrival at Indian airports for all citizens of the FIPIC countries. In addition, we have increased the annual grant-in-aid from US$ 125,000 to US$ 200,000 to each member-country to fund community projects of their choice. We also launched a new ‘Visitors Programme’ for Pacific Island countries,” Mr Pardeshi said.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the leaders of Pacific Island nations at the first Summit of the Forum of India-Pacific Islands Cooperation in November 2014 (Photo from Australian Institute of International Affairs)

Growing Relations

Documents prepared by the Indian High Commission in Suva indicate the growing relations between India and Cook Islands since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1999 after the reopening of the High Commission in Suva and accreditation to the Cook Islands.

The Indian High Commission in Fiji was closed for eight years following expulsion by the post-coup backed regime of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. However, since 1999, relations between the two countries have grown from strength to strength.

The visit of the Suva based Indian High Commissioner Cook Islands on March 2, 2017 to present US$ 690,846 to Mark Brown, then Finance Minister for funding 16 Community Development Projects was an important milestone in Indo-Cook Islands relations.

The High Commissioner held meetings with the then Prime Minister (and current Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum) Henry Puna and other ministers and officials to improve bilateral relations.

Understanding the Pacific

In his ‘Guidebook on Pacific Diplomacy: India Looks to the Far East,’ Patrick Walsh, a visiting Australian researcher at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) said that the Pacific is generally underappreciated and misunderstood by the wider world, and such lack of insight has caused many diplomatic blunders and failed attempts of cooperating with the region.

“The historical and perhaps still conventional view of the Pacific as the ‘backwater of international relations,’ is outdated and inaccurate;  a growing trove of literature is taking heed of the increasingly outspoken and activist Pacific presence at international fora and rightfully regards the Pacific islands as complex, fierce and high-achieving global actors. Importantly, the Pacific should not be confused as a vague annexe to the broader geographic areas of ‘Asia-Pacific’ and ‘Oceania.’ Such terms usually never appreciate Pacific Island states as a diverse grouping of vital, able and increasingly relevant global actors,” he said.

According to Mr Walsh, using such semantics when liaising with Pacific Island states reveals a lack of understanding of the region and the absence of imagination for bilateral or multilateral engagement with Pacific actors.

Tourism is the main driver of the Cook Islands economy (CI Tourism Photo)

India’s role in the region

“India is well placed to act as a more serious stakeholder in Pacific affairs and to engage the Pacific Island countries more meaningfully. While India’s entrance into Pacific relations is relatively recent and the relationship perhaps needs more time to mature, Mr Modi can add more structure and direction to arguably amorphous pledges to engage,” he said.

One of his recommendations for achieving a more streamlined approach to India-Pacific islands relations is to differentiate his foreign policy between the Pacific island states and the ‘Pacific Partners’. The term ‘Pacific Partners’, in this instance, refers to Australia, New Zealand and France as the major (and traditional) stakeholders in the region.

Mr Pardeshi said that India is genuinely interested in the welfare of the people of Cook Islands and other countries of the South Pacific and that six major projects are currently being financed in Rarotonga.

“These include Road Safety improvements for educational institutions under the Cook Islands Road Safety Council (at an estimated cost of $225,000), construction of the Tutakimoa Community Centre ($127,037.50), Palmerston Hostel ($115,000), Sailing Boats and Sailing Boats Development Programme ($46,093), Rarotonga Bowling Club ($41,275) and Te Aroa Mou Water Station ($15,300). We are committed to supporting community and social welfare projects in the Cook Islands,” he said.

These are in addition to more than $2 million donated by India over the past 15 years to fund several infrastructure and community projects.

Mr Pardeshi is yet to visit Cook Islands and intends to do so as the alert level changes and travel become possible and present his credentials to the Queen’s Representative (equivalent to Governor-General) Sir Tom John Marsters. He has had an opportunity to meet Prime Minister Mark Brown during his visit to New Zealand earlier this year. He would be dealing with him for the most part since Mr Brown holds the key portfolios of Foreign Affairs, Finance and Economy, Attorney General and Public Service Commission.

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