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Suva, Fiji: Rival suitors India and China step up their courtship of Pacific island nations this week when Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping head to Fiji following the Group of 20 (G20) summit in Australia.

Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Xi will both hold mini summits during their Fiji stopovers, meeting with up to 12 regional leaders as they bid for the support of one of the largest voting blocs in the United Nations.

Sandra Tarte, director of the politics and international affairs programme at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, said it is clear India and China want to build strategic ties with the Pacific.

“There is obviously an intention to have bilateral meetings and that’s why so many of these other country leaders are here, but from China and India’s point of view, it’s the region that is important and the fact that are 12 votes at the UN," Tarte told AFP.

The Asia-Pacific region has some “strategic relevance and importance, economically, politically and in terms of security," she added

A likely central issue of the talks will be climate change, where low-lying Pacific islands would welcome assistance.

“China and India, they are not just global political and economic powers, but they are contributors to the problem of climate change and the Pacific Island countries are at the receiving end of climate change but do not necessarily contribute to it," Tarte said.

“In the past there has been this deadlock between developed countries and these so-called developing countries on how to approach the issue and whether or not countries like China and India need to make concessions."

“For the small island countries it doesn’t matter who makes the concessions as long as they are made."

‘Exciting time for Fiji and Vanuatu’

Modi arrives in Fiji on Wednesday for a three-day visit with Xi landing on Saturday.

The countries expected to be represented at the talks along with Fiji include Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands, Niue, Nauru, Vanuatu and the Federated States of Micronesia.

Vanuatu’s foreign affairs minister, Sato Kilman who will meet Modi before his premier Joe Natuman arrives in Suva to meet Xi, saw benefits for all countries involved.

“This is an exciting time not only for Fiji and Vanuatu but also for everyone who cares about improving the economic growth and living healthy and productive lives," he told the Fiji Sun.

Although Fiji has a substantial Indian population, Modi will be the first leader from New Delhi to visit since Indira Gandhi in 1981 and the first to have broad interaction with a wide range of island leaders.

But Tarte did not see India expanding its presence in the South Pacific to the same extent as China.

“India doesn’t have the same reach as China does, diplomatic reach. It’s economic ties are not that expansive or as developed," she said.

“China has had a longer history of economic inter-relationships and it is part of the Pacific whereas India is part of the India sub-continent, it’s in the India Ocean so it doesn’t have the same ties."

Sydney-based foreign policy thinktank The Lowy Institute has estimated that from 2005-11, China handed out US$600 million in so-called “soft loans" to Pacific countries such as Tonga, Samoa and Fiji.

Fiji, with 900,000 people, is by far the most populous and economically powerful of the South Pacific island nations and seen as a regional hub for business and diplomacy. AFP

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