Many may be unaware that President Sukarno, first President of Indonesia had led his country’s freedom struggle for Independence from the Netherlands was the first President of Indonesia, serving in office from 1945 to 1967. Sukarno was the leader of his country’s struggle for Independence from the Netherland. He was the Chief Guest at India’s first Republic Day Parade on 26 January 1950.
Sukarno called upon the people of Indonesia and India to intensify the cordial relations that had existed between the two countries for more than 1000 year” before they had been disrupted by colonial powers. Not many may also know that the word ‘Indonesia’ derives from the Latin ‘Indus’, meaning ‘India’, and the Greek ‘Nesos’, meaning ‘island’; due to the striking similarity of culture in both regions. The name dates to the 18th century, predating formation of independent Indonesia.
Ancient ties between Indonesia and India date back to times of the Ramayana. These ties are visible even today with Ramayana and Mahabharata being played in open theatres for Indonesians and foreign visitor. Indonesians, Hindus and Muslims together, perform the Ramayana dance during full moon nights, which is hardly surprising given that all the priests in Amarnath cave in India who perform Hindu rituals and prayers are all Muslims. In Indonesia, the Hindu culture predates back to the Chola period of South India. In addition, the Hindu-Buddhist influence dates back to the 9th century, which can be seen in the Borobudur and Prambanan temples.
Situated between Indian and Pacific Oceans, Indonesia is the world’s largest island country, with more than 13,000 islands, 14th largest country in terms of land area and world’s 7th largest country in terms of combined sea and land area. India and Indonesia share maritime boundary with the southern tip of Andaman and Nicobar just 150 kms north off the Aceh coast in Indonesia.
In the backdrop of rising Chinese aggressive moves, the strategic significance of Indonesia was aptly described by George Friedman through his article ‘Geopolitical Journey: Indonesia’s Global Significance’ published in August 2011, saying, “China’s biggest problem is not that it lacks aircraft carriers; it is that it lacks amphibious capability. Even if it could, for example, fight its way across the Formosa Strait to Taiwan (a dubious proposition), it is in no position to supply the multi-divisional force needed to conquer Taiwan.
The Chinese could break the blockade by seizing Japan, Okinawa or Taiwan, but that isn’t going to happen. What could happen is China working to gain an economic toehold in the Philippines or Indonesia, and using that economic leverage to support political change in those countries. A change in the political atmosphere would not by itself permit the Chinese navy to break into the Pacific or eliminate the American ability to blockade Chinese merchant ships.
The United States doesn’t need land bases to control the passages through either of these countries from a distance. Rather, what would change the game is if China, having reached an economic entente with either country, was granted basing privileges there. That would permit the Chinese to put aircraft and missiles on the islands, engage the US Navy outside the barrier formed by the archipelagos and force the US Navy back, allowing free passage”.
The India-Indonesia relations need to be seen in the context of rising Chinese aggressive moves in the Indo-Pacific. Friedman’s fear of China ‘trying’ to establish bases in Philippines or Indonesia having reached an economic entente with either country, may not be the only reason Philippines President Duterte has broken off from the US, but this is already being tried out by China in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, and significantly has succeeded in Pakistan – all under the garb of facilitating trade and economic development of the region. With the CPEC and commissioning of Gwadar, China has already announced it will locate naval vessels and submarine (s) to ‘protect’ Gwadar. 60% of industrial plots at the Khairpur Special Economic Zone in Sindh, part of CPEC, have been sold to Chinese investors, as per Provincial Minister for Industries and Commerce Manzoor Hussain Wassan. Similarly, Dhabejee, Karachi Circular Railways, Zulfikarabad Industrial Estate and Marble City have become part of the CPEC, though what has been sold to Chinese is not known.
In Sri Lanka, China is poised to acquire 80% stake in Hambantota according a report in the Wall Street Journal; under the deal, China Merchants Port Holdings Co. would pay about $1.1 billion for its share of the port and adjoining land in Hambantota district. Sri Lanka’s ports authority would own 20%. As per officials, the deal is likely to be concluded by early January 2017.
It is in the above backdrop that Indonesian President, Joko Wildodo made a state visit to India from 11 to 13 December 2016 on the invitation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. President Wildodo had assumed office in October 2014. He was accompanied with his wife, seven Cabinet Ministers and a 22-member high level business delegation. India and Indonesia signed a maritime agreement in January 1977.
There have been as many as ten Heads of State/Government visits both ways between the two countries since February 2000, which is testimony to the intensification of the bilateral engagement and the recognition of its future potential.
India and Indonesia enjoy a long standing shared historical affinity and close cultural ties. Indonesia is a strategic partner of India since 2005 and an important trade partner in ASEAN. Indonesia is India’s largest direct trade partner in the ASEAN (about US$ 16 billion two way trade) as also a major target for outward investment (about US$ 15 billion).
Both countries had mandated setting up of an Eminent Persons Group to draw up a Vision Document 2025 to serve as a blueprint for our bilateral relations. After three sittings during 2016, the report had focused on five areas: one, Strategic Engagement; two, Defence and Security Cooperation; three, Comprehensive Economic Partnership; four, Cultural and People to People Links, and; five, Cooperation in Responding to Common Challenges.
Similarly, a joint CEO’s Forum focused on boosting trade and investment relations. President Widodo met President Pranab Mukherjee and had wide ranging discussions with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Vice President Hamid Ansari, who had visited Indonesia in November 2015, called on President Widodo. A strong multi-dimensional relationship with Indonesia is a vital element of India’s Act East Policy (AEP).
The India-Indonesia Joint Statement issued during visit of President Widodo significantly addressed the disputes in the South China Sea (SCS) urging all parties to show utmost respect to UNCLOS, the convention establishing international legal order of the seas and oceans, specifically stating, “Regarding South China Sea, the two sides stressed the importance of resolving disputes by peaceful means, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including UNCLOS”.
It may be recalled, that similar reference to SCS was avoided by Singapore during the summit meeting between PM Modi and his Singapore counterpart Lee Hsien Loong in October 2016 – even though it merely signals China not to go aggressive, defy international norms and laws, and resolve issues peacefully; Singapore apparently perceiving it would annoy China. Incidentally, addressing the first Indian Ocean Conference at Singapoer in September 2016, Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar had made categorical statement that India supports freedom of navigation and overflight, and unimpeded commerce, based on the UNCLOS.
Indonesia is not directly involved in the South China Sea disputes but has taken a more concerted approach as President Widodo has strongly advocated a strategic vision to make Indonesia a “respected maritime power”. Indonesia has had concerns about the presence of Chinese fishing boats near the Natuna islands, which is part of Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone, while Beijing has been making attempts to include the island chain in its territorial maps.
In June 2016, President Joko Widodo visited the Natuna Islands, holding a limited Cabinet (including Chief Security Minister, Foreign Minister, Fisheries Minister, Military Chief and others) meeting on board the Indonesian Navy warship KRI Imam Bonjol, that had clashed with Chinese fishing vessels the previous week. The visit was designed to send a strong signal to China that the Natunas, including waters around them, are part of Indonesia’s territory.
Cabinet Secretary Pramono Anung told media later, “The Natunas are part of Indonesia’s sovereignty and that is final.” In the incident, KRI Imam Bonjol fired a warning shot after spotting Chinese trawlers suspected of fishing illegally in Natuna waters and ended up detaining one Chinese fishing vessel and seven Chinese on board. Two previous skirmishes had occurred on March 19 and May 27 off the same islands this year.
During the visit of President Widodo, both countries signed three agreements. MoUs were signed on Youth Affairs and Sports, as also MoU on Standards. A Joint Communique on iIlegal and Unauthorised Fishing too was issued. The joint statement included a statement on Maritime Cooperation which mandates both sides to draw up an MoU for cooperation in this area. There was agreement on annual meetings of the leaders, besides Strategic Dialogue, Security Dialogue and agreement to negotiate a new Comprehensive Defence Cooperation Agreement.
Following mechanisms are to meet in first half of 2017: Joint Ministerial Commission; Defence Ministers Dialogue and Joint Defence Cooperation Committee; Biennial Trade Ministers Forum, and; Energy Forum at Ministerial level. The first direct flight between the two countries also became operative during President Widodo’s visit; Garuda Indonesia flight Jakarta-Mumbai-Jakarta. Upgrading India-Indonesia relations and closer cooperation will be good for both countries, as well as the region.