The Indo-Pacific potential

Updated - December 15, 2016 09:16 am IST

Published - December 13, 2016 12:15 am IST

President Pranab Mukherjee and PM Narendra Modi
welcome Indonesian President Joko Widodoand his wife HJ Iriana at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

President Pranab Mukherjee and PM Narendra Modi welcome Indonesian President Joko Widodoand his wife HJ Iriana at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, or Jokowi as he is known, began his official two-day visit to Delhi yesterday. Though Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Jokowi met on the sidelines of the 9th East Asia Summit in Myanmar in 2014, this is the first time in the two years that they have been in power that they will meet substantively. This in itself reflects a lack of priority attached to the India-Indonesia relationship so far.

The India-Indonesia relationship has been one of potential rather than realisation. Notwithstanding the efforts made during the tenures of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the partnership has not yet gathered traction. Both countries should ensure that this visit is not just another diplomatic formality but is utilised to turn the relationship into one of the defining ones in Asia.

Advancing the relationship

There are strong bases for India to do so. First, Indonesia is a latent Asian power. It is the world’s largest archipelago, straddling the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It can potentially control virtually all the straits linking the southern Indian Ocean to the South China Sea. Indonesia does not seem to have articulated a strategic vision of what to do with its extraordinary location, but the kernel of such a vision can be found in the words of, most recently, President Jokowi. He sees the country as a “maritime axis” requiring a strong naval force to protect its territorial integrity, fishing waters and energy interests, supported and funded by strong economic growth.

In the past, India has been wary of strategic ‘spillovers’ from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, but it needs to look for partners who can play a stabilising role in the Indo-Pacific region as China is showing its naval muscle in the South China Sea and its strategic and commercial reach through the One Belt One Road initiative; there are uncertainties surrounding U.S. President Barack Obama’s ‘Asian pivot’ and President-elect Donald Trump’s foreign policy; and there are divergences amongst ASEAN countries about where its future interests lie between a looming China and an unsteady U.S. Indonesia would be the best placed to play such a role.

India could recognise Indonesia’s centrality in the Indo-Pacific region and help work towards a future where both countries can be partners for security in the region. The political basis for such a relationship already exists in the Strategic Partnership agreed to in 2005. This could be used to initiate a high-level strategic dialogue aimed at identifying common strategic interests, develop a partnership with Indonesia as a maritime power, and effect a leap in India’s defence cooperation to cover all threats to security in the region. Such a partnership would also be a hedge against dependence on big powers outside the region whose commitment to regional security is subject to their own shifting perceptions.

Second, there is, at present, a battle being waged in Indonesia over the role of religion, ethnicity and language that in some ways mirrors India’s own. Indonesia’s pluralist, tolerant social-religious philosophy has come under serious pressure from a more Arabised version of Islam that looks at ethnic and religious identities in terms of binaries and views the country as a Sunni Islamic state where non-Muslims have to live by the rules of the majority Muslims.

India has a stake in the diversity of Islam found in Indonesia against exclusive and homogenising influences. Indonesia and India can also provide complementary models for the coexistence of religious minorities with majoritarian communities in Asia based on their own traditions of coexistence. Without entering into a domestic debate on religion, India can strengthen Indonesia’s democratic credentials by advocating its admission in a revived India-Brazil-South Africa forum as a pluralist democracy that is an alternative to what appears to be a rise of intolerance in many democracies.

Economic and cultural relationship

Third, India and Indonesia can make a conscious attempt to enhance their economic and cultural relationship. Critical to the former could be a thrust on Indian investment in Indonesia. All major powers today look at foreign investment in economic and strategic terms. Investing in a foreign country is a stronger tool for influence than trade. Indian investment in strategically important countries should thus be seen as an arm of its foreign policy. This has not been the case yet.

Economic growth is President Jokowi’s top priority. He has courted foreign investment, particularly in the energy, infrastructure, manufacturing and tourism sectors. Indian investment in Indonesia is perhaps his most important objective this visit. While there is already substantial Indian investment in areas like coal, textiles, steel, and the auto and banking sectors, much more can be done. Particular attention needs to be paid to increasing India’s presence in the manufacturing sector.

A number of industrial estates have already come up in many places in Jakarta, Bandung, Surabaya, Medan and Batam. Of particular interest to India from a connectivity point of view should be the Medan industrial zone in north Sumatra. A shipping service from Chennai or Krishnapatnam to Medan via the Andaman Islands could be used to export Indian goods to offset, at least partly, the large imbalance in India’s trade with Indonesia.

Finally, in the areas of education, culture, and people-to-people relations, a thrust could be given to Indian Council for Cultural Relations scholarships in Indian universities, increased slots for training under the Indian Technical and Economic Corporation programme, closer academic exchanges, and vocational training by Indian companies in Indonesia.

India could also learn lessons on tourism promotion from Indonesia — from Bali, for instance, where Indians rank high in the list of nationalities visiting that island. India could also learn from Bali about a more ‘simple’ Hinduism that is relatively free from caste and sectarian divisions.

It is hoped that President Jokowi’s visit will provide the thrust to develop a truly strategic relationship between the two countries. It is time to realise our potential.


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