Articles and Commentaries |
January 5, 2021

India and Oceania: Potential and Opportunities

Written By: Cleo Paskal and Lord Fakafanua


Oceania covers a large area of the Pacific part of the Indo-Pacific – roughly between Hawaii, Japan and New Zealand. In good times, this area is the bridge between Asia and the Americas. In bad times, it is the battle-zone. Many of these islands were on the front line of the Pacific Theatre during World War Two, and form parts of the Second and Third Island Chain hemming in China. It still hosts military installations, such as the American base in Guam and the French one in New Caledonia.

China needs to break through those island chains if it is to achieve strategic independence in the larger Indo-Pacific. It is trying to do that in part through gaining influence in the countries of the region, and has been focused on across-the-board engagement throughout Oceania. Partially as a result, other countries including the United States, Japan, and India are showing renewed interest in the region. The people of Oceania are finding themselves courted and pressured in ways they haven’t seen since the era of European colonial expansion in the late 19th century.

As the leadership in Oceania weigh their options, one country that stands out to many as a potential game-changer is India. India seems keen to engage with Oceania, and Oceania is receptive, but movement is slow. The question is why, and what can be done about it?

What is Oceania?

Oceania covers approximately 1/6th of the planet’s surface, and is home to around 10,000 islands, making up over twenty countries and territories (some also include Australia and/or New Zealand). As each habitable island can claim a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), some of the countries cover vast areas. The republic of Kiribati, with a population of around only 1,20,000, has an EEZ approximately the size of all of India.

The main regional grouping is the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) consisting of Australia and New Zealand and 16 Pacific Island Countries (PICs). Nine of the 16 PICs are sovereign nations: Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Kingdom of Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.

The other seven are linked to larger nations through differing agreements, though all have individual votes in at least some international fora. The ones more to the North – the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Marshall Islands, and Palau – have Compacts of Free Association with the United States, giving their citizens access to the US, and entailing close defence cooperation.

The Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau are in Free Association with New Zealand, and French Polynesia and New Caledonia are part of France. In fact, over half of Frances’ EEZ is in the Pacific. There are also locations that aren’t part of PIF, such as the UK’s Pitcairn Island, the US’s Guam and Commonwealth of Northern Marianas, and France’s Wallis and Futuna.

The economies and societies of the strategically important nations of Oceania vary considerably; though largely there are relatively high rates of literacy, and English language abilities. Only three of the independent PICs have militaries—Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Tonga.

Strategic Environment

Until recent Chinese advances, the region was considered largely in the Western sphere of influence. However, after the end of the Cold War, the US and UK largely lost interest in the region, with the UK closing three High Commissions in countries in Oceania in 2006.

The bulk of Five Eyes ‘oversight’ in the central and southern part of the region – often referred to as Melanesia and Polynesia, and including countries such as Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Fiji and Samoa – passed to Australia and New Zealand – two countries which both had colonies and complex histories in the region. The northern part, including the US Freely Associated States such as Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia, still have substantial US influence, as well as increasing Japanese engagement.

Chinese engagement is growing rapidly, and is deep. China has five university-based Oceania research institutes and has delegated primary outreach to the region to Guangdong. This gives the government of Guangdong incentive to increase engagement as it will raise its profile with Beijing, as well as making the vast bureaucratic expanse of China more accessible to the governments of Oceania by having them pass through a smaller entry point with dedicated contacts.

Additionally, countries in Oceania that have signed on to the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) include the Cook Islands, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga, and Vanuatu. The pace is accelerating. In September 2019, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands switched recognition from Taiwan to China and almost immediately afterwards they joined the BRI.

Australia and New Zealand themselves have become more enmeshed with China. In 2019-2020, 39% of Australian exports went to China. In 2019, 23% of New Zealand’s goods and services exports went to China. New Zealand was the first Western country to agree to a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China, to sign on to Beijing’s Asian Infrastructure Bank and it was the first Five Eyes country to join the BRI. Australia has begun a vocal pushback against Chinese influence, especially since COVID-19, but New Zealand is more quiet.

Growing Chinese influence is raising concern in capitals with a stake in the Indo-Pacific, including India, the US, Japan and others. As a result, there has been a flurry of activity. Australia and New Zealand, keen not to lose their position of perceived influence in the region, have announced reinvigorated polices. The UK has opened three new diplomatic missions; French leaders are visiting more often; Japan is putting much more emphasis on its Pacific Islands leaders and defence outreach; the United States is funding a massive Pacific Deterrence Initiative with a component for bolstering partners in Oceania; and India announced a new Oceania division in the MEA.

India and Oceania

Signs of an interest in Oceania began very early in the first term of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In an early demonstration of his new approach to foreign policy, including a highlighted role for the Indo-Pacific, he went to Fiji after the 2014 G20 Brisbane Summit. This made him the first Indian Prime Minister to visit in over three decades. While there, he met with leaders from fourteen PICs, and launched initiatives that were well thought out to show sincere interest in building relations. One that stood out was the announcement of e-visas on arrival in India.

Visas are a sensitive issue for many in Oceania. The process for getting even tourist visas to Australia, New Zealand and the United States is often difficult, expensive and occasionally humiliating. Conversely, many countries in Oceania have easy visa-free like access to the UK and Schengen zone and visa waivers for China. By making visas to India easy to obtain, PM Modi was showing in a very real way, trust and openness to the people of Oceania.

Another notable aspect of the visit was that two days later, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Fiji as well. However, Xi could only meet leaders from eight PICs, rather than the fourteen who met PM Modi, as the others had relations with Taiwan. It demonstrated the lack of geopolitical baggage in working with India.

In August 2015, Modi hosted fourteen PIC leaders in India. A wide range of initiatives were announced, including PICs access to free Indian television and radio content, training for journalists, the setting up of India Centres (with books on India, etc.), renewable energy training and technical cooperation, the setting up of IT labs to facilitate e-education and e-medicine, cooperation with coastal surveillance, hydrology, coastal studies, disaster management, disaster early warning systems, fisheries, health camps, military-to-military cooperation, SME business support, diplomatic training, generic drug manufacturing, and more. However, there was little follow up.

One problem was that MEA was overstretched and coverage of the region was fragmented. Only two of the fourteen PICs, Papua New Guinea and Fiji, had an Indian High Commission with no permanent Indian representation in the dozen other PICs. Responsibility for them was spread out over half-a-dozen or so different Indian missions, making coordination and institutionalisation of knowledge and contacts very difficult.

Additionally, within Oceania there was the perception that India was prioritising engagement with Fiji because of its ethnic Indian diaspora (approximately 38% of the population), and that Delhi was using Indo-Fijians/Indian-Pacific islanders as their main regional interlocutors for similar reasons.

While there is local understanding for India’s instinct to engage with its diaspora, there is exasperation at that being the perceived driver of foreign policy. One reason is that some elements of diaspora have a substantial amount of baggage, that India risks carrying along with them. For example, Indo-Fijian politician Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, holds so many government portfolios, including justice, economy, aviation, communication, public service and enterprises, climate change and anti-corruption, that he is known as ‘Minister A-to-Z’.

He might seem like a good entry point, however in late 2020, it was announced he was being investigated in connection with politically-linked bomb blasts in 1987. There are also regional security concerns around potential radicalisation of some within the Indo-Fijian population. India should be careful and choose interlocutors who think like them rather than just look like them.

This is particularly important because, within Oceania, there is a very high desire for more engagement with India. The majority of the people of Oceania share the same values as most Indian, including faith, family, and education. And there are many economic crossovers, from village-scale economics, to the need for reasonably priced equipment and infrastructure that can withstand hot humid environments, to an aspirational middle class.

China’s entry point is economic before mutating into strategic which in turn attracts others into the region. Engagement with India is seen as economic that evolves into creating more domestic security through providing affordable but reliable essentials such as education, health care, IT, printing, transportation and pharmaceuticals, along with affordable quality of life goods such as textiles, spices and décor.

So the desire is there on both sides, the question is how to make it work. In order to delve deeper into the constraints, we will look at a specific case study, the Kingdom of Tonga.

The Kingdom of Tonga

Tonga was chosen for a range of reasons. Its population of around 1,00,000 makes it a medium sized country by Oceania standards, and it has a literacy rate of close to 100%. Having never been colonised, it has long-standing and experienced foreign policy expertise.

Tonga’s first modern era King, George Tupou I (1797 – 1893) deftly navigated his country through the era of colonial expansion in the Pacific. While other countries in the region were taken over by Germany, France, the UK, New Zealand and Australia, Tupou I balanced external powers in part through a carefully negotiated set of treaties that recognised it as an independent country (Germany in 1876, UK in 1879, and the United States in 1886). At the same time, he set up his country as a mirror of what would be found in the West. This included a Constitution (1875), a legal code, an English-style education system, commercial rights, a postal system, and even one of the world’s earliest EEZ claims (by latitude and longitude). He also, in what Tongans refer to as Tonga’s first treaty, “gave the country to God” – implying any country who tried to take it, was taking it from the Almighty.

This sense of independence combined with a martial tradition (before the arrival of Europeans, Tongans had themselves colonised elsewhere in the Pacific, including parts of Fiji and Samoa) made it even less attractive as a European colonial target. When, in the early 1900s, New Zealand tried to convince the UK to let it take over Tonga, the understated response from the British was it would “raise difficulties”.

Tonga also has a strong regional soft power network. As the last surviving Polynesian Kingdom in an area where familial status is valued, closeness to the Royal House of Tonga reflects standing. King Tupou II (1874 – 1918), carrying on a longstanding tradition, married some of his children into high-ranking Houses across the region as a foreign policy tool, creating enduring kinship relationships across the region.

Additionally, the Royal House gives Tonga international soft power, as it interacts with other Royal and Imperial Households, including in the UK, Japan, Thailand, New Zealand (Maori King) and the royal houses of the Middle East and India. At the 2015 Coronation of the current King of Tonga, guests included political leaders and representatives of chiefly houses from across Oceania, as well as the current Emperor of Japan. Tonga is unique in the region in this respect.

Tonga and the Indo-Pacific

In terms of defence, Tonga is one of only three countries in Oceania with its own military (the other two being Papua New Guinea and Fiji). It has been deployed in Afghanistan, does regular joint training exercises with a range of countries and is currently writing its first Defence White Paper.

Tonga switched recognition from Taiwan to China in 1998, following China’s support of Tonga’s membership in the United Nations. The government of Tonga has a substantial loan from China and signed on to the BRI. There are persistent Chinese interest in major infrastructure projects in the Kingdom, including a ‘slipway’ (China was keen to develop ports across the region). Tonga is typical in the region in that when pressed by Canberra and Wellington about working with China, one reply is that it needed the investment (planes, boats, roads, etc.), and if traditional partners haven’t helped, why should they reject new partners.

Tonga, like most countries in the region, was not naïve; it just saw itself as having different priorities than Canberra and Wellington. Australia and New Zealand were perceived as wanting to ‘secure’ the region in order to enhance their own strategic value and for their own economic advantage. Meanwhile Tongan leaders were trying to ensure development on their own terms by assessing their increasing international options, in order to again find a balance between alliances and independence.

This, to a degree or another, was relevant beyond Oceania as well. Many of the medium-sized and smaller Indo-Pacific nations similarly considered themselves primarily as ‘balancers’ as opposed to ‘weights’. Understanding some of the factors that went into Tongan decision-making helped understand where potential inflection points were across the region.

Effective engagement with Tonga, as with all Indo-Pacific countries, requires understanding very different starting points for history (regional countries tend to have long memories), strategic options, and the responsibilities of the citizen and the state. For example, a Tongan reference point for collective security was an incident involving a 19th century civil war in neighbouring Fiji. Tupou I had become involved and he wanted to put an end to the way Fijians executed prisoners. He decreed that if a village attacks another village, then the attacking village will be known as the enemy of all other villages. Understanding this viewpoint can help today in discussions with Tonga around, for example, acceptable Chinese behaviour regarding Taiwan.

Tonga – India relations

In the 1950s and 1960s, Tonga sent civil servants to India for training. From the 1970s, selected Tongan military went as well, including Prince Tu’ipelehake. His Late Majesty King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV made two state visits to India, in 1971 and 1976. In 1982, India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visited Tonga. She was the first Prime Minister from India to visit Tonga. To date no other Prime Minister has visited Tonga, so the relationship lagged until 2014, when PM Modi went to Fiji.

In spite of the many announcements made, there have been few concrete outcomes, though those that have come to pass have been appreciated. For example, Tonga is a keen and active member of the International Solar Alliance. To better understand how closer cooperation would benefit both countries and increase Indo-Pacific security, here are four specific examples of how Indian engagement with Oceania, using Tonga as a case study, can help increase local security leading to a more stable Indo-Pacific.

  • Many countries in the region don’t have forensic labs, or if they do they are limited. Apart from limiting medical work, this means that criminal investigations are also impeded, or samples need to be sent out of the country, often to New Zealand or Australia for analysis, potentially creating a chain of custody issues. For someone from Tonga, to do training in Australia would be prohibitively expensive, as would be equipping a lab with Australian-certified equipment. And Australia has no incentive to train the people of Tonga or build a lab as it would limit its own role in a critical area. Meanwhile, this is not an area China wants to facilitate either, as it also doesn’t benefit from a country in Oceania becoming more independent. India can offer excellent low-cost training in forensics, with affordably priced equipment. To be clear, this is not aid. Tonga currently pays for forensic services. That money can be reallocated for training and equipping, saving the Tongan government money over the long term, though short-term financing might be required during the transition.
  • Tonga is in a similar situation with dialysis. In spite of a huge demand, there are no machines or trained technicians in the country. Equipment, supplies and training from New Zealand are prohibitively expensive, and it has happened that Tongans in New Zealand for dialysis who run out of money are sent back to Tonga to die. Again, this is an area where access to Indian equipment and training could have a dramatic effect.
  • Veterinary training. Tonga is an agricultural country with not a single veterinarian, except those who come occasionally as volunteers from abroad. Again, training in India would be more affordable, and culturally compatible for Tongan vet students.
  • Tax collection IT. A current concern in Tonga is that the country has very inefficient customs and tax collection, including from the many small ethnically-Chinese run shops. One expert mentioned that Tonga could easily pay off its loan to China, if only Tonga could efficiently collect taxes. The system they are considering buying is from the US and costs close to $10 million. If something cheaper and as good were available from India, it could transform public accounting in Tonga. They just don’t know who to ask.

There are myriad other sectors like this, including coconut products, space, emergency supplies (tents, etc.). Tongans, and the people of Oceania in general, are overcharged for foundational aspects of economic development such as higher education, energy, communications and transportation, while at the same time are flooded with Chinese goods. So, how to make the link? The impediments have come from both sides. First, the barriers for India to engage with Tonga.

  • Visas. Tonga did not reciprocate the easy visa access given by India to Tonga. The process for an Indian to obtain a visa to Tonga can seem somewhat opaque.
  • Transportation. The only way Indians who wish to visit or invest in Tonga is via transits in Australia, New Zealand or Fiji. Even before COVID-19, all travel to Tonga was made difficult by Australia and New Zealand by requiring transit visas that could be complicated or lengthy to obtain.
  • Tongan bureaucracy. Tonga’s foreign Affairs office is overstretched and does not have the time to learn what India is offering for example in terms of scholarships, training, supports, etc., and matching it with Tonga’s requirements.


The barriers from the India side have some overlap, but largely come down to not knowing how to engage, or with whom. In that context, here are some recommendations.

  • India to have at least one person who is a point of contact in each country in Oceania. It could be an Honorary Consul, a manager of a cultural center, and/or the setting up of an India-Oceania Business Council, with branches in each country. That way India would have a person who could attend key events, talk to key people, get to know the countries and their needs, and act as a bridge.
  • India to facilitate the setting up of an ‘Oceania House’ in New Delhi, with space for all the countries of Oceania to have offices and accommodations. This would act as the other end of the diplomatic and business-to-business bridge.
  • In the same way that China has delegated Guangdong as an entry point, India could choose a climate-appropriate state, such as Kerala or Tamil Nadu, to lead on Oceania outreach.
  • Work with the countries of Oceania to develop their unique products, such as kava, noni fruit etc with the potential for worldwide sales.
  • On aid, if requested by the countries of Oceania, collaborate with complementary partners such as Japan. For example, if Japan builds a hospital, India could provide the medical training and pharmaceuticals. This could be especially helpful if building Quad-linked resilience networks.
  • Launch direct flights between India and Oceania, perhaps hubbing out of Fiji, and bypassing countries with restrictive visas. This would also help those who want to go to India for medical care and education, and for Indian businesses and tourists to get to the region.
  • Craft policies based on bilateral relationships, not via third countries. India wouldn’t like to be approached via the UK, so why should India approach Samoa via its former colonial power, New Zealand?

What Oceania needs from India is not necessarily MEA-led. It needs more trade, educational opportunities, training – and in many cases, it can pay. In fact, it already is paying in more expensive markets. Many aspects of the growth can be private-sector led. But the links need to be made, and that can perhaps be initiated by MEA, RIS or similar, until something like the India-Oceania Business Council is off the ground.

Oceania is a vast area, currently in flux. Engagement with India based on trade, education, health care, and more could fill the security gaps created by the push and pull between China and the West, benefitting all concerned, including Quad partners, and showing India to be the Indo-Pacific anchor of peace and security that it is destined to be.

Authors Brief Bios:

Ms. Cleo Paskal is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow for the Indo-Pacific at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (US), as well as Associate Fellow at Chatham House (UK). Her other current affiliations include: International Advisory Board Member, Global Counter Terrorism Council (India); International Board of Advisors, Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies (India); and Visiting Fellow, Centre d’études et de recherches internationales de l’Université de Montréal (Canada).

Lord Fakafanua is Chairman of the Royal Oceania Institute, Kingdom of Tonga. He is a seasoned politician in Tonga and is the incumbent Speaker of Parliament.  In 2014 he took a break from politics to pursue further studies at the University of the South Pacific, Fiji and recently completed a Master of Arts in Diplomacy, Law and Business at the O.P. Jindal Global University, India. Lord Fakafanua has since resumed his political career after getting re-elected in the November 2017 general elections.


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