According to some volcanologists the January 15 eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai undersea volcano which is located about 66 kilometres from the Kingdom of Tonga’s capital Nuku’alofa was once in a thousand years event. This volcanic activity sent a plume of magma and lava up to 20 kilometres into the atmosphere. It led to shock waves travelling thousands of miles and a sonic boom which could be heard also thousands of miles away. It also caused a tsunami which impacted Tonga and other parts of the South Pacific where the country is located. The eruption has covered many of the country’s islands with volcanic ash.
Tonga’s prime minister Siaosi Sovaleni has called the volcano’s eruption an ‘unprecedented disaster’. As I write these lines the full extent of the damage is yet to be known because survey flights have not been able to fly freely because of volcanic ash. Communications too have been disrupted because an undersea internet cable was broken. It will therefore take time before all the damage can be assessed and international relief can reach this country of around 170 islands and a population of just about one lakh. What is clear is that Tonga will need a great deal of assistance to overcome this disaster. Many countries will come forward to assist Tonga. Foremost among them will be Australia and New Zealand which are the leading regional states. However, China is taking interest in the region and through its assistance instrumentalities it has made inroads with many countries. This is inevitably leading to competition between the West and China in what will emerge as a significant part of the world because of its vast ocean resources.
A posting in the Indian embassy in Fiji in 1988-90 enabled this writer to gain an awareness of a part of the world which is not even remotely in the Indian consciousness. The tenure also provided an opportunity to visit some of the Pacific Ocean Island countries (including Tonga) which vary in size and geological structures. Within the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean—the largest in the world–are the very distinct worlds of the islands of Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia. Climate change will adversely impact all these countries but particularly those in Micronesia because their land areas are very limited. What the Micronesian and the two groups have in common are enormous maritime resources but they do not have the capacities to exploit them. Many of these island countries are therefore crucially dependent on foreign aid.
The leading South Pacific Island country is Fiji. Indian indentured labour was taken there by British colonialists beginning from 1879. Most Indians stayed back. The Indo-Fijian community has in part prospered but is full of insecurities because many of them are cane farmers who cannot own the land they farm. Besides, the social practices and norms and mores of native Fijians and the Indo-Fijians are so different that social integration has not been possible despite the passage of almost a century and four decades. Consequently, those Indo-Fijians who could leave have done so.
The absence of integration between Indo-Fijians and native Fijians led to a deep feeling among South Pacific Island countries that the former were outsiders brought by the British and could not have an equal claim as the native population. This impacted the South Pacific countries attitude to the military coup staged in 1987 against an Indian influenced government. It is doubtful if their attitude has changed during the three and a half decades since, though within Fiji enormous social change has occurred within the native Fijian community.
Soon after the 1987 coup India took a strong stand against the coup makers and the native politicians who had supported them. This adversely influenced the approaches of the South Pacific countries towards India. However, over the past couple of decades India has played the diplomatic game well to build bridges with these countries. In this context the Modi government’s move to establish the Forum for India-Pacific Island Cooperation (FIPIC) in 2014 was a timely and far-seeing initiative. Three meetings of FIPIC at the level of heads of government have been held so far, including one in India in 2015. India pledged to support the Pacific Island countries in combating climate change, ensuring food security and on the important issue for India, the reform of the United Nations. The Pacific Island countries have generally supported India’s aspiration to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council. The past two years have interrupted the process of developing closer ties between India and these countries because of the covid-19 pandemic. While this is understandable it is necessary that India shows clearly to them of its continuing interest in taking the relationship further with them. The tragedy of the volcano eruption provides India with an opportunity to join other countries to assist in relief work. This would be a concrete manifestation of the FIPIC process.
The great technological advances of the past decades fuelled by the digital age will inevitably lead to humankind turning to the oceans for raw materials. As it is the extraction of hydrocarbons from the seas and oceans has been going on for many decades. In future the extraction of other materials will also take place. At that time the South Pacific will provide a rich area for productive activities and it would therefore be in India’s interest to continue its outreach to the Pacific Island states.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.