Few people in India are aware that India and Indonesia are geographically contiguous, sharing a settled maritime boundary. The last island in the Andaman and Nicobar chain is only 80 kilometres from the first island of the Indonesian archipelago. This narrow gap guards the entry into the Bay of Bengal and is also the gateway to the Arabian Sea and the Gulf, from the East. This geography imparts a special importance and role to the two countries as maritime powers.
India regards the Asean as the pivot in any emerging economic and security architecture in Asia. In this context,too, Indonesia has a special place as the largest and most influential country in Asean. India’s trade with and investment in Asean is already the most dynamic component of our external economic relations. India-Indonesia economic relations have been a significant part of this rapidly growing economic partnership and Indian business has a substantial presence in that country. But China dwarfs the Indian presence, which must increase substantially to make a visible impact. Indian investment does not create the same anxiety in Indonesia that Chinese investment does. The presence of a highly respected and well-adapted community of Indian professionals in virtually every sector of the country is a major plus point which can be leveraged advantageously.
Asia is home to several emerging and globalising powers, including India,China and Indonesia. An important consequence of this is the increasing density of maritime communications from the Pacific to the Indian Oceans in which all major Asian powers have a growing stake. Given their location and capabilities, India and Indonesia have a critical role to play as sentinels guarding these vital lifelines. This is important to their own security. It will also enable them to play a key role together in shaping the emerging security architecture in the region. It is not in our interest that this architecture is shaped mainly by China or assumes a character detrimental to our interests.
The reported offer to US Admiral Keating by his Chinese counterpart, to divide the responsibilities for the Indian and Pacific Oceans between China and the US, respectively, reflects a certain negative trend of thinking. Chinese assertion of territorial sovereignty over the whole of the South China Sea and describing this as a core Chinese concern is also ominous. Such ambitions need to be countered and firmly put aside by other major powers in the region and by Asean as a whole. The major responsibility, however, will be of India and Indonesia, for reasons already mentioned. The two countries should take the lead in pursuing what should be a preferred objective of all major countries in the region, and this includes China and the US, that is, the creation of an open, inclusive and loosely structured architecture in which all work together to keep the sea lanes safe and secure. One component of this exercise will involve much closer and regular engagement with all the major players in the region. The other will need to focus on building up the naval capabilities of countries like India and Indonesia and their ability to work together in a closely coordinated manner. A beginning has been made with joint maritime patrols as part of the strategic partnership established between the two countries in 2005, but there is still a long way to go.
There is another reason why Indonesia and developments in that country should be of major concern to India. Here is the largest Muslim country in the world, but the Islam practised by the vast majority of its people is liberal, tolerant and accommodative. It blends comfortably with a pride and even delight in the country’s extremely rich and diverse cultural legacy, including Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi and even animist origins. Like India, Indonesia is a mosaic of different ethnic and religious groups and this makes Indonesian secularism, like India’s, a natural political arrangement. Over the last decade, Indonesia has emerged as a vibrant and plural democracy. Its economy is buoyant and a new sense of confidence is evident both within its political leadership as well as its large and growing civil society. It is important to India that this plural, diverse, moderate and secular democracy is not only able to survive but flourish. It would be a nightmare if the forces of Islamic fundamentalism and religious extremism, that are buffeting our borders to the West, spread to our eastern flank. Liberal Islam is under attack in Indonesia as it is in India. The activities of groups such as the Jemaih Islamiya, responsible for several terrorist attacks in Indonesia, are a major concern. These groups have links with South Asian terrorist networks. India and Indonesia must work together to consolidate and strengthen their plural democracies and defeat terrorism.
The very obvious cultural affinities which India and Indonesia enjoy are a valuable asset. The colours and sounds of India are evident throughout the archipelago, but have been transformed and refined through the innate aesthetic genius of the Indonesian people. These hark back to an earlier age of flourishing commerce and a parallel traffic of cultures, religions and ideas between the two countries. But there is a more contemporary delight that Indonesians have in India’s popular culture, in particular, Bollywood. Shah Rukh Khan is probably better known in Indonesia than the Indian Prime Minister.
It was in the 1950’s that Nehru and Soekarno together stressed the importance of India and Indonesia working together to lead Asia’s resurgence. The Bandung Conference of 1955 represented their first effort to create a new global order, anchored in an emergent Asia. Perhaps that effort was premature. It was in any case swept aside by the divisive winds of the Cold War. Today, a new moment has arrived with the geopolitical centre shifting to Asia. India and Indonesia can together put their own imprint on the emerging Asian landscape, preventing a politically authoritarian and culturally monochromatic alternative. India needs to make relations with Indonesia the centrepiece of its Look East policy.
The author was India's Foreign Secretary and until recently the Prime Minister's Special Envoy