India and Indonesia: United by Common Values

by May 25, 2018 0 comments

India and IndonesiaIndonesia and India are the two major powers both on the sides of the Indian Ocean. Both the countries when come together, can play a balancing role in an unbalanced region during tensions regarding the South China Sea.

A public lecture by HE Luhut Pandjaitan, Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs of the Republic of Indonesia on ‘Indonesia’s Maritime Policy and Thinking of ways forward for India-Indonesia as Maritime Neighbours’ on May 17, organised by the Nehru Memorial Library and Museum, envisaged a plethora of strategic scenarios where India can choose to play a significant role in the region. In fact, the South China Sea (SCS) dispute has prompted a re-look at India as a balancing factor.

Besides drawing a wide canvas of India’s probable roles, Luhut  Pandjaitan substantiated all components of foreign policy of Indonesia, which provide congenial environment for India, to forge stronger economic and strategic ties. He also highlighted common issues such as poverty and terrorism faced by the two countries. His visit to India is important as Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to make a three-day visit to Indonesia later this month in reciprocation to the recent visit by Indonesian President Joko Widodo.

The Prime Minister’s upcoming visit will bring both the countries closer as a number of agreements are on the cards. Among the known agendas, as revealed by Luhut Pandjaitan, is that Modi will lay the foundation stone for a hospital at the Sabang port which is the westernmost coastal location of Sumatra Province and is strategically perceived to be important for both countries. Prime Minister Modi is also expected to announce several investments to strengthen the Sabang Port and its economic zone, which, with its deep harbour, is capable of hosting submarines along with other Naval vessels.

This development is seen to be accentuating India’s probable role as a balancer in the region amid brewing unstable situation in the SCS through which an annual trade of $5.3 trillion passes and where the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has continuously been installing several strategic bases in an attempt to build its war effort in the SCS.

The precedence of the Chinese establishment in SCS shows PRC’s adamant behaviour and closely echoes a popular Indian proverb: “If an elephant passes through a market, barking of dogs is natural.”

Indonesia is itself facing issues with its Natuna islands located in the southern part of SCS which were partially claimed by the PRC. China also had a tiff with the Indonesian Navy in 2016. Though, according to Luhut Pandjaitan, situation is now under control, it seems he is not fully convinced as the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), off the coast of Natuna, is partially within China’s SCS claim, which is indicated by the so-called “Nine-Dash Line.”  

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), whose basic agenda was to promote political and economic cooperation and regional stability, never achieved a consensus on any commonly perceived external security threat. This because each and every country in the region reels under different kinds of pressures, either economic or strategic, mounted by the PRC. In reality, they are reeling under diplomatic pressure, which the PRC has augmented in recent years by seriously engaging directly with individual countries in the region at different levels ie, bilateral trade, investments, political and domestic affairs as well.

Some global think-tanks term the formation of Asean as a security community since no significant war has taken place among themselves. The reason for the Asean being a peaceful place may be attributed to Indonesia, the largest country in the region which suffered for 32 years under the dictatorship of Suharto  who was rather an inward-looking person and depended mostly upon the US for its external security issues. The rest of Asean nations were concerned with domestic issues such as insurgency, political instability, economic stability and state-building. Another factor that has prevented Asean from becoming a security community is non-interference in each other’s internal affairs which is its sacred principle.

The second factor was proved by the experience of the two countries in the region viz  Philippines and Vietnam, who are major stakeholders in the SCS and are equally bullied by the PRC. However, they hardly found any shoulder from Asean to support their genuine claims. This was clear when the Hague Ruling (under Article 287, Annex VII of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) debunked the PRC’s so-called historical claim on the SCS and the islands that it encompasses.

Silence on SCS issues, exhibited by the Asean, emboldens PRC’s claim and that’s the primary reason why China continues its belligerence, giving a signal that it was completely immune to all external factors, including world public opinion in this regard. It has increased its patrolling, construction and military installations with upgraded surveillance equipment in the SCS, created fierce geopolitical tensions among big powers and uncertainty among nations in the region.

The paradox is that all Southeast Asian (SEA) nations, even those who do not stake claim to the SCS, are directly or indirectly going to be impacted with the PRC standing vigilant just across its doorstep. On the outcome of the Hague verdict, Philippines, with its allies, was in a celebrating mood while other claimants seemed sceptical in displaying public cheer. The outcome, which was already feared by the countries of SEA before the Hague verdict, was visible in their statements from day one.

India’s swift handling of the Doklam issue with the PRC followed by Modi’s recent visit to PRC and his continuous efforts to balm the escalated injury exhibited by the Chinese military was taken as a role model for Asean countries. Their conviction towards India is getting stronger which is proved by an ever-increasing exchanges of leaders between India and Asean, especially with Indonesia. The change in India’s Look East Policy to Act East Policy seems to be placed at the right time.

Relationship between India and Indonesia is based upon deep shared culture and agama as Indonesian archipelago thrived under one umbrella of Indic fraternity, which is currently termed as the Indic Belt. However, post the formation of nation-states, both the countries got engaged in bigger power alliance politics, overlooking the power of cultural bonding between them. India could not take advantage of this opportunity to strengthen bilateral relations with Indonesia and other countries in the region. The foundation of Indian foreign policy under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru changed its course frequently and tilted more towards holding Western hands, post Chinese attack on India.

In order to counter aggressive, and assertive hegemony of PRC, India marginalised its approach to strengthen relationship with smaller but strategically powerful nations in SEA at the cost of building economic and strategic blocs. On the other hand, the PRC utilised its diasporic presence in the Asean countries only to exhaust its industrial products, flooding the market with mundane products which could have been easily produced and marketed among themselves.

Thus, leaving India far behind in terms of gross trade, PRC has emerged as a sole economic giant in the region.  India’s trade with Asean reached to $71 billion in 2017 while China’s bilateral trade with Asean stood over 500 billion in 2017. In contrast to China-Asean  trade relations, the Indian trade is not making any rapid growth.

Luhut Pandjaitan called for stronger and balanced bilateral ties between the two countries. Aaccording to him, both countries are very large and powerful and share common maritime boundaries. Indonesia’s westernmost Province, Aceh, is only 100 nautical miles, which translates into 45 miles away from India’s Andaman Nicobar islands. This itself gives a great prospect with an abundance of possibilities of building economic bridge between the two countries.  Sumatra islands of Indonesia seems to be flooded with huge deposits of coal, gas and minerals and India can tap the resources given its geographical proximity. To balance the trade deficit, Indonesia is expected to increase its import on pharma, IT, defence and meat products for which it is dependent on Australia and other Western countries as revealed by Luhut.

(The writer is Assistant Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

Writer: Gautam Kumar Jha

Courtesy: The Pioneer

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