The visit of Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) to India as Chief Guest at this year’s Republic Day is potentially a defining moment in India-Indonesia bilateral relations. On January 13, 2011 IDSA organised a Workshop on India-Indonesia: Is there a Case for a Special Relationship? A glimpse of the multifaceted nature of this relationship is presented here in a compilation that contains some Issue Briefs and Comments by leading Indian specialists as well as the Workshop Report.
The India-Indonesia partnership in the 21st century is defined by a context entirely different from the post-independence exuberance when President Sukarno graced the first Republic Day celebrations of 1950. Now, India’s rising profile in Asia and its acknowledgement by the Major Powers has brought it closer to ASEAN’s leading State, which itself has re-emerged as a democracy after a long spell of authoritarian rule.
First, Indonesia’s transition to democracy following Suharto’s resignation in May 1998 marked a significant advance. Then, Indonesia opted for ‘democracy first’ as a desirable domestic paradigm as opposed to the ‘security first’ paradigm. Indonesia’s aspiration for unity (Bhinneka Tunggal Ika) in spite of its ethnic and cultural diversity, matches India’s own quest. Second, Indonesia’s authoritarian regime began unravelling once the economy crumbled (Economic Crisis). Hence economic revival became an important element in the post-Suharto period. India’s economic liberalisation and Look East policy initiated in the early 1990s provided the necessary point of convergence. A third (domestic) context has been Indonesia’s struggle against terrorism. Like in the case of India, Indonesia too has been a victim of terrorism as the October 2002 Bali bombings and the July 2009 terrorist attacks amply illustrate. In the absence of the draconian laws under the Suharto regime, the US still expects sterner action from Jakarta against the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorists. A fourth (external) context is Indonesia’s growing ties with the United States, signified by the Comprehensive Partnership Agreement. This is matched by India’s own relations with the United States especially since the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Indo-US nuclear deal. The Indonesian economy has experienced enough turbulence and it is in the US’ larger interest to project Indonesia as a centre of stability. A fifth context is Indonesia’s emergence as a regional power in Southeast Asia, which should make it a natural partner for New Delhi.
India and Indonesia are poised to reshape their ties at the economic and strategic levels. Indonesia is India’s third largest trading partner in ASEAN and bilateral trade is targeted to reach $20 billion by 2015. It rose from just $4billion in 2005 to $14 billion in 2010. Indonesia operationalised the Free Trade Agreement on October 1, 2010 (signed between India and ASEAN earlier in August 2009). When the President arrives on January 25, he will bring with him a 400 member trade delegation.
India could potentially invest in rail and port construction, and in the palm oil and food processing industries in Indonesia. The Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) inflow from Indonesia was in non-conventional energy, construction, information and broadcasting, and electrical equipment.
Indonesia and India share common interests in the WTO. The possibility of cooperation exists in the field of energy, including nuclear energy. A nuclear energy cooperation pact signed in 1980 but which subsequently lapsed, could also be revived.
During the 2005 visit of President Yudhoyono, the bilateral relationship was raised to the level of strategic partnership. India’s Andamans are in close proximity to Indonesia which is crucial for controlling the entry point from the Indian Ocean to the Bay of Bengal. Joint patrols by the two navies in the Strait of Malacca was undertaken, besides participation of Indonesian Navy in the Milan naval exercises. The Indian Navy also provided timely aid during the tsunami that hit Aceh.
India provides ground support training for Sukhoi aircraft to men from the Indonesian air force.
India and Indonesia had signed an MoU on counterterrorism in 2004. Indonesia’s experience in successfully fighting against terrorism is exemplary. There are plans to target terror funding and a pact to prevent drug trafficking. An extradition treaty is also on the anvil.
Indonesia is the largest and most influential member of ASEAN and is the new ASEAN Chair. In addition it is a member of the Group of Twenty. The possibilities of cooperation in multilateral forums such as the UN, ARF, CSCAP and East Asia Summit continue to present themselves. India cannot ignore Indonesia’s credentials as the largest Southeast Asian nation, which is a vibrant democracy, a bastion of moderate Islam, committed to multilateralism (ASEAN headquarters being based in Jakarta), and with a good record in counter terrorism and in maritime security. At a time when China reasserted itself in the South China Sea (claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia), the Indonesian Foreign Minister rejected China’s efforts to keep the US out of the dispute. President Obama’s visit to Indonesia in November 2010 followed directly after his India visit. Equally, Indonesia is cognizant of the fact that China must not get the impression that ASEAN is ganging up with the US against China. This perhaps explains why a South China Sea Code of Conduct acceptable to China has not yet evolved.
As the political challenges facing the two countries are similar, Indonesia is interested in learning about the working of India’s National Human Rights Commission, National Disaster Management Authority and the Election Commission.
India could potentially leverage its soft power in Indonesia. Indonesians acknowledge that all their faiths (Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam) came from India. The tradition of Ramayana and Mahabharata (though modified) continues. Indian films too are popular in Indonesia. While Indonesia offers visa on arrival to Indians, the same is not reciprocated to Indonesian nationals. A close understanding between the two countries has been fostered by a regular flow of high level visits in recent times: President Wahid (2000), President Megawati (2002) and President Yudhoyono (2005). Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reciprocated with a visit in April 2005, while the Indian President paid a visit in December 2008.
Why have India-Indonesia relations not flowered to the fullest extent? Has history been an impediment (Indonesian support for Pakistan during the 1965 War) or are some procedural delays hampering a closer understanding? Despite the delays and some hurdles, perhaps the changed regional and global situation has now opened up new avenues for better relations between the two countries. The writings presented here seek to address some of these issues in India-Indonesia relations.