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India-Indonesia: Is there a Case for a Special Relationship?

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  • January 13, 2011

    Chair: Ambassador Shyam Saran

    Opening remarks: Mr. N.S. Sisodia

    Speakers: Ambassador Navrekha Sharma, Rear Admiral A.K. Chawla, Prof. Man Mohini Kaul, Prof. Baladas Ghoshal, Dr. Pankaj Kumar Jha

    A half day workshop was organised by IDSA to discuss whether there is a case for a special relationship between India and Indonesia. The workshop was held in the context of the upcoming visit of the Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, as the chief guest at this year’s Republic Day parade. The workshop centred mainly on suggesting policy options for India on a range of issues concerning its relationship with Indonesia.

    In his opening remarks, Mr. N.S. Sisodia, DG, IDSA, said that the historical legacy of India-Indonesia relations is remarkable. He added that even though Indonesian democracy suffered for a while, the fact that the current president is in his second term is significant. Like India, Indonesia is a diverse society that follows moderate Islam in a multiethnic society. It is trying to advance economically. In the recent past, it has seen growth of about 6 per cent. Like India, it faces the threat of terrorism, and both have a similar outlook on China. Due to these similar interests and perspectives a case for special relations can be argued for.

    The chair, Amb. Shyam Saran, said that it would not be an overstatement if India-Indonesia relationship is called as one of the most important relationships for India. He added that with regard to China, both countries have similar problems and perspectives. Both are engaged with China, yet are reluctant to raise conflicting issues. Better bilateral engagement is possible as there are various strong reasons for that.

    The following points were made by the speakers and the participants, in the course of their presentations, and in the discussions that followed.

    • Until recently Indonesia was the ‘sleeping giant’ as far as economy was concerned, but of late it is making steady economic progress.
    • Indonesia’s national identity has two components:
      • Democracy: it has survived dictatorship and bounced back economically since the Asian financial crisis of 1997, through good governance and other domestic strategies.
      • Secularism: Indonesia has a strong secular constitution despite having the largest Muslim population in the world. It has defended the constitution against the extremists’ pressures. Historically, Pakistan has influenced Indonesia’s India policy, but that should not deter the development of India-Indonesia relations.
    • Indonesia has done well on HDI indicators but lacks in mathematical, computing and engineering techniques. This is where Indian and Indonesia can cooperate to learn best practices from their mutual expertise. Indonesia’s weakness in English should not become a factor in developing economic relations.
    • Indonesia will not compete with India for the UNSC seat. Both have different grounds to claim it. Indonesia is still not willing to consider itself in power terms.
    • Indonesia controls access to large portions of waters that are of strategic utility for India; thus its strategic importance needs no elaboration.
    • In the Nehruvian era, India exported defence equipment to Indonesia and the 1950s was the highpoint of their defence relations. However, the India-China war of 1962 and Pakistan’s influence changed a lot of things for India. Since the end of the Cold War, things have taken a positive direction but the momentum is still missing as East Timor kept Indonesia occupied for a fairly long time. India-Indonesia defence ties improved following the end of the latter’s defence treaty with Australia.
    • India has increased its influence in the region, economically, militarily as well as diplomatically. There is a need to emphasize democracy as a mutually shared value. The two countries have become important for the world: on one hand, Indonesia is courted by all the major powers because of the high level of resources and also its strategic importance, and on the other hand India is viewed as a benign power and an economic powerhouse, which has no intention of becoming a hegemon. There are, however, some suspicions in India and Indonesia about each other. Regular security talks have helped to allay these suspicions in the recent past.
    • India’s growing ties with the United States are an advantage since Indonesia is also getting closer to the US.
    • There is a need to back up the inter-governmental relationship with people to people contact as well as with trade. This is important because sound and sustainable relationships create a critical mass within countries who speak for that relationship. For the creation of a critical mass and people to people relationship there is a need for a strong neighbourhood policy
    • India needs to chalk out a clear neighbourhood policy as only a strong and stable relationship with the immediate neighbourhood will lead to robust relationship with other regions. Strategic objectives can also be achieved by using soft power and not necessarily with the help of hard power. The softer side of diplomacy, if pursued aggressively and imaginatively, can prove to be quite useful.
    • Indonesia has been facing terrorism for the last two decades and there has been a transformation in the terrorist attacks in the archipelago. There are still existing communal tensions in areas like Sulu, Palembang and Sulawesi. And new splinter groups of terror outfits are emerging. The leaders of the largest terror organization in Indonesia, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), have either been arrested or killed during the last five years of successful Indonesian operations against terrorism especially in the aftermath of the second Bali Bomb blasts. There have been increasing traces of inter-linkages between Arab and Pakistani influence among the cadres of the splinter as well as major terrorist groups. There are also links between Hijbul Mujahidin, the former LTTE, Abu Sayyaf and JI. India needs to learn lessons with regard to counter terrorism operations and the cooperation of civil society. There is need for also scrutinizing the formation of splinter groups like Al Qaeda of Aceh, which is very close to Andaman and Nicobar islands. There is need for intelligence sharing and better coordination with Indonesian authorities. There is need for annual dialogue between the internal security agencies and greater awareness about the various terror groups.

    The Chair, in his concluding remarks, said that while Indonesia is very important for India strategically and economically, the energy partnership holds an equally important place in the relationship. The historical cultural affinity is an obvious but powerful diplomatic tool that is still underutilised. There is certainly a case for a special relationship not only due to military-strategic reasons but also because of the fact that the two countries are struggling with a number of common challenges.

    Report prepared by Rahul Mishra, Avinash Godbole and Gunjan Singh, Research Assistants at IDSA, New Delhi