The EurAsian Times on 29 May 2018 quoted Global Times editorial warning of India’s possible conflict with China over Indian Ocean Region. “China has always kept a positive outlook towards India’s overseas port investments, but that doesn’t mean Beijing will turn a blind eye on India’s military collaboration with Indonesia. China’s extensive use of Malacca Strait means its economic and energy security gets threatened if India builds a military base at Sabang port in Indonesia,” it said.
During his 2018 visit to New Delhi, Indonesia’s Minister for Maritime Affairs, Luhut Pandjaitan, had claimed that Sabang port’s 40meters depth suitability for all vessels including submarines.
China’s apprehensions are not unfounded on the face of this news report. They would have appreciated the possible India-Indonesia formidable combination in the Indo-Pacific. Prime Minister Modi and President Joko Widodo signed 15 MOUs including Defence and Security Cooperation in 2018. Furthermore, they welcomed the plan to connect Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Aceh to unleash economic potential of both areas. It was decided to set up a Joint Task Force (JTF) to undertake projects for port-related infrastructure in and around Sabang.
2017 Growth Trade at 28.7%
India and Indonesia had begun considering developing Sabang in 2014-15. However, it was economically unrealistic back then. But now, with a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership,’ the bilateral trade is likely to peak at USD 50 billion. Additionally, India is also optimising its trade with ASEAN which will lead to sustainable and mutually beneficial trade relations with Indonesia. Moreover, there are a number of untapped areas which are being examined by the JTF with procedural impediments under assessment.
PM Modi also invited Indonesian business groups to invest through ‘Make in India’ initiative. An MoU was signed between Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Kadin) and Confederation of Indian Industry with the latter setting up an office in Jakarta.
India-Indonesia Initiatives in Consideration
- Bilateral cooperation in –
- Civil aviation
- Development of ports and surrounding areas for people-to-people contact
- Facilitating economic activities
- Access to clean, reliable and affordable energy
- Examining solar, wind and nuclear avenues
- Promoting energy-efficient technologies, new and renewable energy technologies
- Shared vision of replacing fossil fuel while maintaining energy security
In consideration, the agenda is comprehensive and in tune with good neighbourly relationship.
At this stage, an examination of Indonesia’s internal electoral dynamics and geopolitical landscape is essential. Interestingly, for the first time in its history, Indonesia held multiple elections in April 2019. It was for the President, Vice President, members of national, provincial and local assemblies all at the same time in one day without a hitch. It speaks very highly of political awareness of citizens and the deep roots of democracy.
Incidentally, Indonesia has always taken things slowly, because of its inward-looking policies given their domestic compulsions. It has SE-Asia’s largest population, largest economy and largest geographic area. It is home to more Muslims than any other country in the world and yet it has had success with democracy. The notion of incompatibility of Islam with democracy thus fails in case of Indonesia.
Former US Secretary Defence James Mattis referred to Indonesia as “fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific area”. The US is increasingly interested in bringing Indonesia much closer in the emerging Indo-Pacific security architecture since it has over 13000 islands in the region. Current dispensation in the Pentagon and US State Department appears to pursue Secretary Mattis’ policies.
Indian Ocean Region and the Pacific
Meanwhile, in the Indian Ocean Region, there is strong Defence and Strategic convergence, with the India and US partnership, lifted to a 2+2 ministerial level. Continuation of strategic policies is also expected with Modi government in Delhi. America’s efforts to Co-opt Indonesia as the fulcrum of Indo-Pacific, embracing India as important strategic partner and the warming up of ties between India and Indonesia offer the opportunity to blunt China’s increasing assertiveness.
Back then, the Indonesian Minister for Maritime Affairs, Mr Luhut Pandjaitan, stated clearly to the press that Indonesia would like to see India as a balancing power to Indonesia’s outstanding areas of dispute with China. Since long, Maritime boundary north of the Natuna Islands between PRC, Indonesia, and Taiwan has remained an issue of friction. Natuna Islands are located more than 200 kilometres from Island of Borneo and is one of the outermost areas of Indonesia. Recently Indonesia commissioned a military base in Selat Lampa on the Netuna Besar Island.
North Natuna Sea
Although Indonesia is not a claimant state in South China Sea, Jakarta and Beijing have had several maritime skirmishes in this resource-rich area, including one in 2016 when an Indonesian patrol boat seized a 300-tonne Chinese fishing vessel. Several hours later, a Chinese coast guard vessel rammed the fishing boat. As a result, this incident gave Indonesia reason to create this base which has roughly 1000 military personnel. President Joko Widodo has specified that Natuna Islands are Indonesia’s sovereign territory. China’s claims of 9 Dash Line on the other hand makes Natuna adjacent waters potentially explosive. China has objected to Indonesia’s naming of seas adjacent to Natuna as North Natuna Sea stating that it was within its territorial waters.
Indian Ocean Region: Sea Lanes of Communication
Rondo island, Indonesia’s northernmost island of Sabang district is 163 kilometres from Indira Point, the southernmost point Andaman Nicobar Islands. Sabang island overlooks the Malacca Straits through which passes entire trade between Pacific and the Indian Ocean. Indian Naval presence in Sabang could provide surveillance opportunity to India and add to existing Indian Ocean Maritime Domain Awareness fusion centre, a flagship project in which approximately 36 countries are sharing white shipping data. This interestingly provides better opportunity to the Indian Navy for responding to any crisis in the Indian Ocean and better security to global commons in Sea Lanes of Communication in the IOR. This is an essential ingredient for ‘net security provider’ to its neighbourhood.
In this context, Andaman & Nicobar Islands are not too far from Sabang and technology would make it even nearer when President Joko Widodo and Prime Minister Modi begin their second innings.