Indonesia pivotal to our Indo-pacific strategy
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Indonesia as part of his three-nation tour to Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, highlighted the new-found strategic convergence between the two nations at a time when the centre of global economic and geopolitical attention has shifted to the Indo-pacific region. Both India and Indonesia are strategically located at the fulcrum of global geopolitics as well as major trade and energy corridors in the region. While India occupies a central position in the Indian Ocean region by virtue of being situated in close proximity to important maritime choke-points and Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCs), Indonesia holds an extremely crucial geostrategic space because of the four strategic maritime passages — namely the Straits of Malacca, Lombok, Sunda and Ombai-Wetar — which fall under its maritime jurisdiction. Its control of these four maritime openings makes Indonesia the linchpin of India’s Indo-pacific strategy as the archipelagic state not only gives India unrestricted access to the Pacific, but also offers the prospect to jointly monitor the shipping lanes in the region, especially since Beijing’s naval footprints have increased dramatically over the last decade. The criticality of Indonesia is such that without the country’s support and cooperation, any strategy to link the Indian and the Pacific Ocean cannot sustain.
It, therefore, comes as no surprise that even though 15 agreements were signed between Modi and Indonesian President Joko Widodo, the highlight of the visit was India’s decision to invest in the Sabang port, situated at the gateway to the Strait of Malacca, the most important and busiest shipping lane in the world. While not much is known about the terms of the agreement between the two countries, the fact that there is a clear military dimension to the port is evident from Indonesia’s coordinating minister for maritime affairs Luhut Pandjaitam’s statement that “the port’s 40-metre depth is suitable for all kinds of vessels, including submarines”. Expectedly, the Chinese media’s reaction was quite vocal, threatening India and Indonesia to “steer clear of any military cooperation”. That geopolitics dominated the discussions between the two leaders was also apparent in India’s request to be allowed to join the Malacca Straits Patrol (MSP) with Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand (which was, however, declined by the Indonesian side citing operational limitations and differences).
India and Indonesia are separated by a mere 80 nautical miles of water. But the mental distance between the two Indian Ocean littoral states had been way too far for much of their independent history, except for a brief period in the 1950s. Jakarta’s close ties with Beijing and Islamabad and suspicions about New Delhi’s hegemonic ambitions in the region put relations with India on the back burner for much of the twentieth century. It was only after the onset of democracy following the downfall of the Suharto regime in 1998 and most prominently after the 2005 India-Indonesia Strategic Partnership Agreement that relations between the two countries took a more positive turn. This spurt in ties got further sustained by the convergence of India’s “Look East” policy and Indonesia’s “a thousand friends and zero enemies” approach, whereby it sought to engage with all the major powers in the region through a “dynamic equilibrium”.
However, Jakarta’s recent clash with Beijing over fishing rights around the Natuna Islands as well as India’s growing differences with China in its disputed land border and more recently in the Indian Ocean has put both India and Indonesia at odds with Beijing’s increasing belligerence in the region. During Modi’s visit, the two sides emphasised on the importance of achieving a “free, open, transparent, rules-based, peaceful, prosperous and inclusive Indo-pacific region, where sovereignty and territorial integrity, international law, in particular United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Seas (UNCLOS), freedom of navigation, sustainable development and an open, free, fair and mutually beneficial trade and investment system are respected”. This was a veiled reference to their opposition to China’s territorial claims and militarisation activities in the Indo-pacific region, which not only overlap the exclusive economic zones of states like Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, Brunei, etc, but are also in contradiction to the provisions of the UNCLOS.
However, Indonesia’s significance for India lies not just in checking Beijing’s growing naval ambitions in the region, but is also extremely important in addressing unconventional threats to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Of particular importance is the Aceh province of Indonesia, located at the northern end of Sumatra. The presence of terrorist entities like Al-Qaeda, ISIS and the rise of religious fundamentalism in the province highlights the likelihood of these groups using the uninhabited islands of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for their nefarious activities. Against this backdrop, New Delhi’s investment plans in the Sabang port in Aceh and the recent decision of India and Indonesia to set up a special task force to enhance connectivity, promote trade, tourism and people-to-people contacts assumes a lot of importance.
For Indonesia, which stood against India in its 1962 war with China and the 1965 war with Pakistan, to make a strategic turnaround in the twenty-first century and have a “comprehensive strategic partnership” with New Delhi shows the increasing recognition in Jakarta of India’s ability to play a prominent role in the Indo-pacific region. Indonesia’s growing relevance for India is also evident from the discussions between the two sides to hold annual summits between their leaders, on the lines of the summits that India holds with Russia and Japan. This reflects the immense strategic value that New Delhi attaches to Indonesia. Moreover, being the largest among the ASEAN states and the most populated Muslim nation in the world, Indonesia offers incomparable advantages for India not just in addressing its security concerns but also in meeting New Delhi’s global aspirations.
As India gradually attains centre-stage in the Indo-pacific region, new opportunities and challenges are cropping up before it. However, what becomes extremely necessary for New Delhi in view of the changing dynamics of the region is to shed off its image of a “rhetorical actor” in Southeast Asia and become more actively engaged in the region. Modi’s visit to Indonesia did provide the initial sparks at a very opportune time in history, but whether that spark can hold on to ignite and propel the relationship between the two countries to greater heights will depend a lot on India’s actions rather than rhetoric.
(The writer is a research scholar at Jamia Millia Islamia)
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