Indian President Pranab Mukherjee, who recently spent six days in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and New Zealand, has openly said that the main purpose of his first state visit to the two countries was to counterbalance China in the Asia-Pacific region.

Sharing his views on current global geopolitics with the media, President Mukherjee said that it has become crucial for India to improve its presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Otherwise, it would not be possible to counterbalance the growing influence of China in the region, he told the press. According to the president, India is worried about China because the Chinese influence hurts its economic development.

Mukherjee further revealed India’s future plans, saying that New Delhi decided to strengthen ties with all the Asia-Pacific countries. “You know nothing happens automatically. We shall have to make efforts,” he stressed when asked about Chinese influence in PNG and New Zealand.

The president informed the media that India was ready to sign a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with New Zealand, saying: “I conveyed India’s willingness to work towards an early conclusion of a FTA, keeping in mind the need to find a satisfactory resolution of our mutual concerns.” It is unfortunate that New Delhi and Wellington have failed to sign the accord even after holding 10 rounds of discussions since 2010, said Mukherjee.

Meanwhile, he thanked Prime Minister Narendra Modi for showing a sense of urgency in finalising the FTA as soon as possible. The president believes that the Modi government has taken a positive step by organising two summits of Asia-Pacific Island nations in the last couple of years. “The third summit is being held at PNG and I do hope Indian delegation will consist of high-level representatives. Therefore, a beginning has been made and it will naturally be taken to its logical conclusion in course of time,” he added.

Mukherjee claimed that the outcome of his visit to PNG was positive, as the top political leadership of the island nation supported India’s bid for a permanent UN Security Council seat. In Port Moresby, he assured Prime Minister Peter Charles Paire O’Neill that India would expand ties with PNG both horizontally and vertically in various fields, like trade, commerce, investment, and also share technical expertise in these fields.

In recent times, Prime Minister Modi has taken a more active approach on global issues. His approach has helped India move away from being a reactive power to one that shapes regional and international outcomes. In the early 1990’s, India had taken a cautious approach on global issues due to its compulsion to reconstitute foreign policy especially after the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war. Since coming to power in May 2014, PM Modi has been following Deng Xiaoping’s advice. The paramount leader of China (from 1978 until his retirement in 1989) had advised the top leadership in Beijing to “keep a cool head, maintain a low profile and avoid taking the lead” after the Asian powerhouse entered the era of reform (at the end of 1970’s). Almost 25 years after Deng’s launch of reform programmes, China no longer maintains a low profile.

Perhaps, Modi’s idea of India as a leading global power is the beginning of a same phase. However, there is a difference. Unlike China’s assertiveness that has made Asia and the world nervous, the rise of democratic India is commonly viewed as a benevolent development. Currently, the PM tries hard to improve India’s relative weight in the international system and President Mukherjee’s six-day visit to PNG and New Zealand indicates the change in New Delhi’s foreign policy.

Koushik Das, based in the Indian capital of New Delhi, is a senior news editor with more than 15 years of experience. He also runs a blog - Boundless Ocean of Politics. E-Mail: [email protected]