Indian Decade

India’s Overlooked Friend

Much ink has been spilled over India’s strategic ties with Burma and Vietnam. Indonesia shouldn’t be forgotten.

Much recent media attention has focused on India’s outreach efforts in its neighborhood. But while special attention has been placed on political and economic initiatives aimed at Vietnam and Burma, there’s an oft-overlooked Southeast Asian nation that also has plenty in common with India – Indonesia.

The civilizational links between both countries, including the fact that Indian epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata having had an indelible impact on the cultural milieu of Indonesia, have been widely commented on, as has the strong influence Sanskrit has had on language in Indonesia.

However, there have also been shared political interests, with both having played a crucial role in building the Non-Aligned Movement. The Bandung Conference, where Nehru and Sukarno took the lead in promoting the Non-Aligned Movement, was a historic moment in relations between the two nations.

And there’s the economics – trade between the two has deep roots, with India now importing large amounts of coal from Indonesia. Indonesia, meanwhile, is also an attractive tourist destination for Indians, not least because of the cultural commonalities and rich history of the two countries. The “visa on arrival” for Indian citizens is perhaps recognition of this.

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But while the two countries have so far had a generally cordial relationship, much remains to be done if Jakarta and New Delhi want to take full advantage of the opportunities available to both.

And there are plenty of political similarities for them to build on.

Both societies are pluralistic and proud of their diversity. And even setting aside their joint efforts over the Non-Aligned Movement, both have tried to adopt a neutral path on the international scene. Perhaps most importantly, though, India doesn’t need to sell the merits of its model of government to Indonesia. Many Indonesians already point to India as an example of democracy flourishing despite the challenges of size and diversity. Respect for Indian institutions and democracy is thus its best opportunity for projecting “soft-power.”

You’d think with all this in mind that there would be huge interest here in India in studying the potential in such a like-minded country. And yet, for some reason, and despite the commonalities I’ve mentioned, there are hardly any scholars on India in Indonesia. Not only this, but there seems to be little interest among Indians in this country of 240 million.

So what can be done to push mutual engagement to the next level? While at the recent East Asian summit, leaders of both countries resolved to strengthen trade, there really needs to be greater interaction between journalists, business partners and scholars of both countries. Indonesia needs more India specialists and vice versa. With this in mind, the Indian government could perhaps play a pro-active role in funding an India chair at either one of its premier think tanks or universities.

Strategic ties will only truly grow through greater interaction at all levels, and by ensuring that the relationship doesn’t get constrained by the whole India versus China debate. Instead, it should focus on what the two countries have in common – especially their genuine commitment to pluralistic and multi-ethnic societies.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is an Associate Fellow with The Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi