Suva, Nov 19 (IANS) India sought to “renew an old relationship” with Fiji and forge closer ties with small South Pacific island nations as Prime Minister Narendra Modi Wednesday announced steps to boost closer ties with the geo-strategically important region.
Modi became the second Indian prime minister in 33 years – after Indira Gandhi – to visit the Fijian capital Suva.
He later departed for home, ending a 10-day tour that earlier took him to Myanmar and Australia.
The Fiji visit underlined the growing geo-strategic importance of the 14 South Pacific islands that lie at the centre of a key maritime route rich in resources. The islands dot the ocean east of Australia, over 11,500 km from India.
The Fiji government accorded Modi a ceremonial welcome. Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama received him at the airport.
Modi’s visit comes ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s three-day trip to Fiji from Friday.
China has been busy forging close relations with the island nations and has set up diplomatic missions in almost all the islands.
The 14 islands, although small, have a vote each in international fora. They hold strategic weight for New Delhi as it seeks to increasingly play a larger international role.
Modi held talks with Prime Minister Bainimarama, presided over the signing of three MoUs, addressed the Fijian parliament, becoming the first foreign leader to do so, attended the first India-South Pacific Island nation meet and later spoke at the Fiji National University.
Modi admitted that the India-Fiji relations had “at times been adrift, and that our cooperation should be much stronger than it is”.
He said he saw his visit as an opportunity to renew an old relationship – and lay the foundation for a strong future partnership.
The three MoUs were for the exchange of land for a new chancery building in New Delhi, on diplomatic exchanges to allow Fijian diplomats to train in India, and on project financing for an electricity co-generation plant funded through the Exim Bank of India.
Prime Minister Bainimarama said some 15 more agreements were in the works — on agriculture, trade, health, water and sports.
“We are pleased that our relationship with India is growing and we are proud to have India as a partner in Fiji’s future,” he said.
In his address to parliament boycotted by the opposition, Modi said Fiji could serve as a hub for stronger Indian engagement with the Pacific Islands and become the centre for India’s regional cooperation in space.
He announced visa on arrival for Fijians and two Lines of Credit totalling $75 million for the sugar industry and a grant of $5 million to strengthen and modernise Fiji’s village, small and medium industries.
Modi offered India’s help to build a Digital Fiji and thanked Fiji for hosting Indian scientists to track the Mars Mission, Mangalyaan.
Remembering the people of Indian origin who comprise 37 percent of Fiji’s nearly nine lakh population, Modi said: “Fiji will always have a special place (for us). Fiji is a leader in the region and a strong voice in the developing world.”
Addressing the first Pacific Island Leaders Meeting, Modi proposed a slew of steps for closer cooperation, including visa on arrival for all and an e-network to connect the islands to provide tele-medicine and tele-education.
He announced a Special Adaptation Fund of $1 million to provide technical assistance and training for capacity building to the Cook Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Nauru, Kiribati, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Samoa, Niue, Palau, Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Fiji and Papua New Guinea.
He announced a hike in Grant-in-Aid from $125,000 to $200,000 annually to each island for community projects selected by them and a trade office of the Pacific Island nations in New Delhi.
Modi proposed the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) be held on a regular basis and that the next meeting could be held in 2015 in a coastal location in India.
Addressing representatives of civil society at the Fiji Technical University, Modi said India will once again play the role of “Vishvaguru” or teacher to the world.
He said India would use the strengths of its democracy and young population for the benefit of mankind.
Modi said India’s ancient sages had spoken about India’s global responsibility and that India would play a pivotal role in the coming “Gyan Yug” playing the role of a “Vishvaguru”.