Essentially, the move is intended to align policies in the region stretching from western Pacific (with the Pacific islands) to the Andaman Sea and the very area China regards as its strategic backyard and is jostling for influence with its smaller neighbours and the US. By focusing administrative and diplomatic attention, India wants to signal its own focus on the region.
Reenat Sandhu, additional secretary and formerly India’s ambassador to Italy, will head the new vertical, assisted by two senior directors, Geetika Srivastava and Paulomi Tripathi. The geopolitical sweep and messaging is important as it indicates India’s priorities over a longer timescape even as the timing of the decision in the current context of heightened military tensions with China in Ladakh is significant. It signals a meshing of Indian interests with key blocs and nations in the Indo-Pacific.
The Oceania division will include Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific islands and sources said this gives Australia greater prominence within MEA. Australia has been growing in importance in India’s foreign policy, but within the MEA structure, it was part of the ‘South’ division. With the rejig, Australia gets bumped up to be handled by an additional secretary, rather than a joint secretary.
This was felt to be necessary with Australia playing a larger role in India’s outreach to this region and because of the Quad. Including the Pacific islands in the division, sources said, acknowledge them as also being within Australia’s sphere of influence. These islands are now a major destination for Indian diplomatic interest and development assistance.
Foreign secretary Harsh Shringla has continued to sharpen MEA’s approach to this crucial region in Indian foreign policy. In 2019, former foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale created the Indo-Pacific division to include Asean, Quad and Indian Ocean Rim Association. Earlier, the MEA had created the Indian Ocean division, bringing together Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles. In late 2019, MEA included Madagascar, Comoros and Reunion Islands into the IOR division, expanding its ambit.