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India and Indonesia -- on the Cusp of a New Relationship

Amb. Sudhir T. Devare is the Director General, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
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  • January 20, 2011

    The invitation to the Indonesian President for the Republic Day as Chief Guest is a fine symbolic gesture by India. In 1950, over 60 years ago, President Soekarno was the Chief Guest at the first Republic Day function. The Indonesian President’s visit is a happy and positive development in India-Indonesia relations.

    How do India and Indonesia look at each other, the region and the world at large? This will determine the course of our relationship in the coming years. We have started now-a-days a more regular dialogue at the highest level and interaction is growing at all levels. What are the mutual perceptions and expectations is something which we must analyse.

    As for Indonesia, I believe it finds India a successful democracy, which, over the past decade has also done very well economically. This was not the case in earlier years. In Asia where there has been always a debate about economic success of democracy (or the lack of it), the Indian situation can be a good example. For a relatively young democracy that Indonesia is, bracketing with India becomes useful. Besides, India and Indonesia share several common features such as religious, linguistic or racial pluralism, and a vast population across a large territory, threats of separatism, ethnic conflicts and terrorism, and above all challenges of development. Both have been champions of Asian Solidarity and Non-alignment.

    In their perceptions about India – while there would be admiration, there might also be competitive jealousy. That India today finds itself in a different league of major powers of the world may not be lost on them. Be that as it may, Indonesia appears fully prepared to work with India.

    In India, knowledge and information about Indonesia is minimal. Indonesia’s transformation from a totalitarian state to a viable democracy and a resilient economy (6.1 per cent GDP growth rate) in a short span of 10 years is remarkable and needs to be noted. The image of Indonesia as a ‘suffering’ country due to natural disasters persists. Indonesia’s great strengths are not often noticed. It is important to bear in mind that Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world but continues to resist pressures towards Islamisation. Though some compromises seemed to have been made with Islamic fundamentalists in recent years, the body politic of the country remains largely secular. The Indonesian government has dealt with international terrorism in a firm and effective manner. Indonesia appears well entrenched on the democratic path with three peaceful and fair democratic Presidential elections in the last decade.

    With better understanding on both sides, the approach towards our relationship for the future can be clearer. Bilateral interaction in every field needs to be given a substantial boost. Political institutions on both sides need to understand each other more. While we should share our experience in constitutionalism, the role of the military in public life, democratic decentralisation or experimentation towards inclusive growth, it will be worthwhile to understand the Indonesian experience of devolution of power to the districts, population planning, role of NGOs in governance and environment, etc. One of the main areas that we constantly need to understand and interact on is about the role of religion in society and how to deal with the issue of religious fundamentalism. A moderate Islam in Indonesia is of major importance not only for Indonesia but to the outside world.

    On trade, indicators are encouraging. The bilateral FTA should be concluded as early as possible. Equally impressive is the Indian investment in Indonesia, both in the public as well as private sectors. Besides resources, investments should also flow into service sectors. In the areas of education, science and technology, nuclear energy, space, etc., India could do much more. We may revive the nuclear energy agreement. Essentially, we should associate Indonesia with the knowledge sector which they would welcome.

    Defence is a very promising field. In Southeast Asia, India enjoys confidence among the countries of the region because of its historical record. Even though a threat perception about the Indian navy which the Indonesians seemed to have in the 1980’s is no more present, it took six years for our defence cooperation agreement to be ratified after it was signed in 2001. We now need to enter into an intensive effort on defence cooperation projects. Joint naval projects could be an important area especially since the Indonesian requirements of naval platforms is large and India has the necessary expertise. In view of China’s long term strategic plans in the region, defence cooperation and coordination amongst countries of the region such as Indonesia and India could become a hedge against China’s strategic weight. This does not mean that these countries need to confront China (indeed Indonesia and China in the absence of a common border do not have any military confrontation).

    On the bilateral front, both sides need to identify the hurdles that have come in the way and try to plug the loopholes. Perhaps, a joint task-force could be set up for the purpose since the record of implementation on agreed decisions has not been particularly good, both in India and in Indonesia. On our side, we also need to strengthen our mission in Jakarta. Given the responsibilities of the Embassy for bilateral as well as ASEAN related work, the present strength is not adequate.

    Regional (ASEAN related)

    Indonesia remains a key player of ASEAN even though it has always maintained a low profile. Perhaps that itself was the reason why ASEAN has survived and sustained itself all these years. Indonesia’s support to India throughout our Look East Policy needs to be recalled. It was the concurrence of President Soeharto that proved to be one of the enabling factors for India to become a dialogue partner of ASEAN in 1995 and a member of ARF in 1996. Again, after our nuclear tests, Indonesia was largely instrumental in playing down the criticism of India within ASEAN and in the ARF at large. Today, Indonesia needs our strong support especially during its chairmanship of ASEAN. In the debate over ASEAN+3 vs. EAS+2, the Indonesian position will be of much importance. Some ASEAN members in the EAS are already seeking stricter definition between the EAS and ASEAN+3. In fact, there is discussion going on as to how narrow or wide the vision for regionalism and the practical, functional cooperation should be. China is clearly vocal in setting a narrow Asian arrangement, whereas for the overall security and political architecture of the Asia-Pacific, a wider and broader vision is called for.

    Indonesia can play a major role in defining this vision, since Indonesia hosts the ASEAN Secretariat and ERIA (Economic Research Institution of Asia). Besides, Indonesia has its own vision of playing a larger role beyond the confines of ASEAN. It is therefore in the best position to outline the contours of the Asia-Pacific architecture. Our thinking in favour of a broader Asia-Pacific vision should be coordinated with that of Indonesia. This is also expected to meet wide approval from amongst the Asia-Pacific community since the earlier proposals of Australia and Japan were of similar nature. The US is also expected to extend its support.

    Our own partnership with ASEAN which is currently on a steady and growing path needs to be further broad- based. Our presence in the region is still minimal. We need to work closely with like-minded States of ASEAN such as Singapore, Indonesia, and Vietnam in establishing our long term interests, be it security, economic or cultural. In this regard Indonesia becomes a key player.

    Global

    Indonesia seems to be giving signals of its ambitions to become a major player in the world. By the dint of its size, population, and location, it hopes to qualify for that status. Its absence from BRIC and IBSA appears to make it unhappy. It is still active in the non-aligned world and in South-South cooperation. Indonesia’s membership in G-20 offers India an opportunity to work together on global financial issues. It may be in our long term interest to help Indonesia join the ranks of emerging economic groupings like BRIC, IBSA and others.

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