Reviving the India-Indonesia Relationship

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Reviving the India-Indonesia Relationship

Ties with Indonesia are an under-appreciated part of India’s “Act East” policy.

Reviving the India-Indonesia Relationship

Indonesia schoolchildren visit the INS Karmuk during the 28th India-Indonesia Coordinated Patrol (CORPAT)

Credit: Facebook/ Indian Navy

India and Indonesia conducted a 17-day joint coordinated patrol exercise in the Andaman Sea in October. This was the 28th such coordinated patrol and second bilateral maritime exercise between both countries. The under-reported event reflects an under-appreciated aspect of India’s renewed engagement with East Asia.

There has been much attention and analysis of India’s rapprochement with Japan and Australia over the last decade. These relationships have been regarded as a microcosm of India’s broader engagement with East Asia under the aegis of its “Act East” (formerly “Look East”) policy, as well as the strengthening relationship between India and the United States in the post-Cold War period.

However, given India and Indonesia’s size, their historical ties and mutual proclivity for pursuing an independent foreign policy, the trajectory of their bilateral relationship holds significant weight for the evolving regional architecture in Asia. Moreover, as two of the world’s largest democracies with the largest Muslim populations, the development of these two countries will have much to say about addressing the alleged dichotomy of Islam and liberal democracy.

History of False Starts

India and Indonesia have a complex history, which has led to several false starts in their relationship. Indonesia and India maintained a long history of interaction in the domains of religion, language, art, and architecture until the 15th century. However, exchanges were not always so benign. For instance, in the 11th century, during India’s Chola Dynasty, King Rajendra I conducted several naval raids of Srivijaya (centered in Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula), which are believed to have been carried out to protect Chola India’s trade with China, then under the rule of the Song Dynasty.

Following its emergence as an independent nation-state, India under the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, re-engaged with Southeast Asia under his grand vision of an “Asiatic Federation of Nations.” This manifested with India convening the Asian Relations Conference in 1947 and a conference in 1949 to voice opposition to Dutch “Police Action” in Indonesia. This phase of Nehruvian “Asianism” also found expression in the “Bandung spirit” of 1955, in which Nehru and Indonesian President Sukarno were key architects. This became the precursor for the Non-Aligned Movement and the Asian-African Summit. India also played a prominent role in the establishment of the Indonesian armed forces and both countries held their first joint naval exercises in July 1960.

However, from the 1960s India’s role in Southeast Asia withered as Asian solidarity perished while the regional security architecture fractured along the Cold War divide. This was made evident by the creation of the U.S.-led Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and the 1962 war between China and India. While Sino-Indian relations deteriorated, Indonesia turned toward China with the conclusion of a Friendship Treaty in 1961. This contributed to an increasingly confrontational relationship between India and Indonesia, as evidenced by Indonesia’s support for Pakistan during the 1965 India-Pakistan war, which even prompted speculation of a possible naval confrontation between India and Indonesia over the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Tensions were further inflamed by India’s cordial relations with Malaya in the midst of Indonesia’s Konfrontasi (confrontation) policy.

Relations between India and Indonesia further deteriorated in the 1980s as Jakarta became concerned about Indian naval modernization efforts and ambitions to build up its military capabilities on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which at the closest point are approximately 80 nautical miles from the Indonesian island of Sumatra. This was perceived as a means for India and its erstwhile ally the Soviet Union to project naval power into the South China Sea.

These concerns would eventually be alleviated as India stepped up confidence-building measures with regional powers. Such measures included Indian participation in multilateral forums such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and CSCAP (Council for Security Cooperation in Asia-Pacific), as well as the “Milan” biennial naval meetings hosted by the Indian Navy since 1995, the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation established in 1997, and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium established in 2008, of which Indonesia is also a member. Bilaterally, India began joint naval exercises with Indonesia off Surabaya in 1989 and in the Andaman Sea in 1991, which has been followed by coordinated patrols (CORPAT) on their respective sides of the International Maritime Boundary Line in the Andaman Sea since 2002.

Both countries have also established several bilateral agreements and exchanges aimed at strengthening strategic cooperation. This includes Foreign Office consultations since 2013, the Joint Defense Cooperation Committee set up in 2007, a New Strategic Partnership in 2005, a Memorandum of Understanding on combating terrorism in 2004, the India-Indonesia Joint Commission co-chaired by both countries’ foreign ministers constituted in 2003, and a Bilateral Agreement on Cooperative Activities in the Field of Defense in 2001. Both countries also maintain extradition and Mutual Legal Assistance treaties aimed at strengthening cooperation in combating transnational crime and terrorism. Indonesia is India’s second-largest trading partner in Southeast Asia while the India Business Forum established in Jakarta in 2012 aims to deepen economic engagement.

Strategic Convergence

Beyond their intertwined histories, both countries also share several traits in their strategic outlooks. Notably, though India has traditionally been regarded as a continental power while Indonesia is an archipelagic state, both countries are rediscovering their maritime traditions after decades of being inward looking and preoccupied by internal insurgencies and separatist movements.

Under the government of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, Indonesia has elevated the strategic importance of the maritime domain by referring to the country as a “maritime fulcrum” with ambitions of emerging as a “global maritime power” and unveiling a new defense white paper in May that put a renewed focus on maritime security. This has been accompanied by a more aggressive approach in protecting the country’s maritime resources, as seen by the detention and sinking of foreign fishing vessels that stray into its waters; plans to upgrade the country’s naval and drone capabilities and step up oil and gas exploration activities around the Natuna Islands; and a greater emphasis on developing the country’s maritime economy. Many of these developments are taking place under the aegis of the coordinating minister for maritime affairs, natural resources and the environment — a position created by the Jokowi government. These developments are a significant shift from Indonesia’s traditionally “hands-off” approach on maritime affairs, as evidenced by the country’s official position of being a non-claimant state to the maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea, despite the partial overlap between Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone and China’s “nine-dash line” claim to waters around the Natuna Island chain.

India has also been rediscovering its maritime traditions with the development of a more ambitious naval strategy to support its growing maritime interests. Some 95 percent of India’s total trade is conducted by sea, including over 70 percent of the country’s oil imports. In this context, India has declared ambitions to develop “a brand new multi-dimensional Navy” with “reach and sustainability” extending “from the north of the Arabian Sea to the South China Sea.”

Historically, maritime cooperation between both countries has been limited by their position of being highly protective of their maritime sovereignty, with India regarding the Indian Ocean as its natural “sphere of influence” while Indonesia has opposed the presence of non-littoral states in addressing maritime security near its territorial waters. However, in recent years both countries have shown indications of softening their positions as they have recognized challenges in policing and protecting their extensive maritime interests and claims. For Indonesia, this refers to the country’s 17,000 islands while for India this refers to its 7,500 km coastline and exclusive economic zone of over 2 million square km. Both countries have also developed a more expansive and inclusive strategic maritime outlook, as they have become key advocates of a new “Indo-Pacific” strategic geography for Asia. The convergence of both countries’ maritime orientations was also made evident following the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004 when the Indian Navy provided humanitarian assistance to Indonesia as part of the Regional Core Group and the establishment of the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Security Forum in 2012, of which both countries are members.

China also remains an ever-present challenge to both countries’ regional ambitions. India’s engagement with Indonesia in the post-colonial period was rooted in its status as a bulwark against Chinese expansionism in the region. This prompted India’s strong support for Indonesia’s independence movement and later struggle against the growth of communist parties and insurgencies within its borders. In fact, the later deterioration in relations between India and Indonesia and concomitant improvement in relations with Vietnam coincided with the former warming up to China while the latter faced deteriorating relations with Beijing.

Both countries maintain a complex dynamic in their relations with China, combining economic engagement with latent security concerns. China has emerged as a leading trade partner for both countries as well as a major source of foreign investment, as illustrated by China winning a contract in 2014 to construct a high-speed railway to connect Jakarta with Bandung. However, both countries also continue to face unresolved disputes with China and latent concerns that China’s rise as a major power could impinge on their own regional ambitions.

Shared Socioeconomic/Political Trajectories

Politically, both countries have seen the rise of “can-do” leaders from outside the established political elite with a reputation for good governance. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Joko Widodo – both elected to their respective positions in 2014 – have pledged to improve infrastructure, overcome bureaucratic bottlenecks, and combat corruption. Both countries have struggled to manage their religious, ethnic and linguistic diversity, leading to a string of separatist movements, occasional social unrest, and sporadic pogroms. Nonetheless, India and Indonesia have surprisingly succeeded better than most of their regional peers in maintaining a culture of tolerance couched in their democratic and secular credentials. In doing so, both countries have disproven dire assessments of being too diverse and unwieldy to effectively govern as cohesive nation-states.

Despite having differing economic models – with Indonesia’s traditionally resource-dependent economy being weakened by the end of the commodity super-cycle while India has benefited from the same – both have demonstrated impressive growth rates buoyed by reform momentum and large and growing middle classes. Most recently, both countries have belied being labelled part of the so-called “fragile five” group of emerging economies despite the other members of this group – Brazil, South Africa, and Turkey – still remaining worthy of the title.

This is not to say that both countries have always been on the same page in their political and economic development. India’s reform momentum has been somewhat more decisive than that of Indonesia given the strong mandate of Modi’s government relative to the unwieldy coalition that Jokowi leads. In fact, Indonesia’s ruling PDI-P (Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle)-led coalition more closely resembles the previous Indian government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, with Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi often pulling the strings from behind the scenes, as PDI-P President Megawati Sukarnoputri is doing in the current Indonesian government. Moreover, unlike India, the military continues to be a prominent player in Indonesia’s politics (although much reduced from the Suharto era).

Externally, Indonesia has been the architect of a much more robust regional architecture rooted in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), compared to India’s attempts at doing so through the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Nonetheless, both countries have often expressed ambitions to “transcend” their respective regions with Indonesia sometimes seeking to look beyond “ASEAN centrality” through strengthening its “middle power” diplomacy. Meanwhile, India, through its “Look East”/ “Act East” policy, has sought to escape the shackles of South Asia’s limited economic integration, which has often been held hostage to the poor state of India-Pakistan relations.


Irrespective of the outcome of the upcoming U.S. presidential election, in the context of pressures of fiscal austerity, operational fatigue from the military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and on-going preoccupation with developments in the Middle East, there will remain a growing narrative in U.S. foreign policy for allies and partners to “do more” in sharing the burdens of regional security. In this context, countries such as Indonesia and India – with a strong tradition of pursuing independent foreign policies – are likely to emerge as increasingly prominent players. While their complex history of interaction demonstrates that shared interests do not always translate into convergent policies, India and Indonesia’s regional ambitions, growing maritime orientations, and apprehensions over China’s rise demonstrate that they are well positioned to develop a broad-based partnership. As such, the trajectory of the India-Indonesia relationship provides a harbinger for the evolving regional architecture of Asia.

Chietigj Bajpaee is a doctoral candidate in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. He has worked with several political risk consultancies and public policy think-tanks.