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Narendra Modi in Indonesia: PM looks to revive old friendship with focus on trade, maritime security

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s three-day official visit to Indonesia aims to revive the old warmth in the relationship that the two countries enjoyed for a long time with a focus on maritime ties and economic relations.

File image of Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Reuters
File image of Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Reuters
India will be looking at developing the Sabang port in Aceh province, the closest Indonesian region to India, a figurative stone’s throw from the Nicobar islands. Sabang is an underdeveloped but strategically located deep water port close to the Malacca Straits through which a major part of India’s east bound trade passes.

Indonesia’s minister coordinating of maritime affairs, Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, who was in India in the run-up to Modi’s visit, sought Indian investment in the Sabang Special Economic Zone. “India-Indonesia relations are important for the balance of power in Asia,” the influential Indonesian minister said.

The visit beginning 29 May, is Modi’s first visit to Indonesia and would complete the round of bilateral visits by Modi to all ASEAN countries. It would hasten the process of reviving the deep historical linkages that existed between India and Indonesia till a few decades ago.

Indonesia and India were natural partners during their struggle for independence which followed a similar trajectory and the early post-independence period was a time of close friendship and cooperation between the two countries and their leaders, Sukarno and Jawaharlal Nehru.

Indonesian leaders were inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and other Indian leaders. Later, the advent of authoritarian governments in Indonesia led to decades of disinterest in the relations. Bilateral ties began reviving with first with India’s Look East policy and later with the added emphasis of the Act East policy and greater involvement in the ASEAN region.

Indonesia is often compared to India because of the number of similarities they share, and not merely the similarity in their names. Like India, Indonesia is a secular, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual society which is described as the world’s third largest democracy and has the world’s biggest Muslim population. Indonesia is a high growth emerging economy dealing with similar issues such as unemployment, rising rates of inflation, inadequate infrastructure development and corruption.

Strengthening maritime security cooperation would be a focus area, in line with India’s emphasis on maintaining peace and security of the Indo-Pacific region. Indonesia lies next to the one of the world’s busiest shipping routes through the Malacca Straits. As a close maritime neighbour with similar maritime security concerns in the Indo-Pacific region, India can develop its defence cooperation, particularly naval cooperation with Indonesia.

India and Indonesia have an ongoing defence cooperation, which would benefit with a greater infusion of energy. Indonesia, despite being an archipelago, had not been a major naval power. It had traditionally focused on the Pacific Ocean which is its main trading region. But President Joko Widodo emphasised on turning Indonesia into a maritime power since he unveiled the Global Maritime Fulcrum strategy in late 2014.

India and Indonesia have been strategic partners since 2005 and have developed a mechanism of regular ministerial meetings. Indonesia is India’s largest trading partner in the ASEAN region. Bilateral trade, which was to the tune of $13.43 billion in 2016-17 has now reached $18 billion. Indian companies have invested $15 billion in the Indonesian economy.

Indonesian investment in India is much lower and Modi is expected to meet a group of top Indonesian CEOs. During the Indonesian president’s visit to India in 2016, the two sides agreed to begin a strategic dialogue and work on a comprehensive defence cooperation agreement. There was also an agreement on holding regular meetings of the top leadership of the two maritime neighbours. The first strategic dialogue was held earlier this year. Key areas for cooperation with Indonesia are in the field of pharmaceuticals, space, defence and security issues.

Widodo has visited India twice, on a state visit in December 2016 and in January 2018 to attend the India-ASEAN commemorative summit when the ASEAN leaders were chief guests at the Republic Day celebrations.

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