News analysis

Maritime security drives push for closer India-Indonesia ties

Leaders concerned about growing Chinese assertiveness

Indonesian President Joko Widodo's two-day visit to India was a key step towards re-establishing proximity between two countries concerned about growing Chinese assertiveness, said analysts.

Mr Widodo and his counterpart, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, discussed a range of issues and areas of collaboration, but it was maritime cooperation that was the major takeaway from the visit.

In a statement released after their Monday talks, the two countries acknowledged they "share common interests in ensuring maritime security and the safety of sea lines of communication". They also stressed the need for freedom of navigation rights and a peaceful resolution in the disputed South China Sea while committing to more naval exercises.

Analysts said maritime security in particular was emerging at the centre of this latest push to strengthen ties.

"The (Indian) government is making an effort to get closer to Indonesia and maritime cooperation is the centre point of its renewed push. India's principal threat is in the Indian Ocean from China," said former Indian foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh.

President Joko and his wife pay their respects with floral tributes at The Samadhi or cremation site of Mahatma Gandhi at Raj Ghat in New Delhi. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

"President Joko has declared Indonesia will be a maritime hub for the region and he is strengthening naval capabilities. It is a good coincidence that our Act East policy focuses on maritime cooperation."

India's Act East policy, which follows from the earlier Look East policy, is aimed at strengthening economic, political and security ties with India's East Asian neighbours.

Mr Modi has made maritime security an important feature of his foreign policy amid a growing Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean, from Chinese submarines docking in Colombo to Beijing developing Gwadar Port in Pakistan.

Besides Indonesia, it has also strengthened maritime linkages with countries such as the United States and Japan, as well as other Asean countries.

Indonesia, too, has its own worries after Chinese fishing vessels started operating near the Natuna islands. Mr Joko in June went on a warship to the islands to send a message to China and reassert Indonesia's presence.

India and Indonesia have long historical ties. When former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visited in 2011, he was the chief guest at India's annual Republic Day, an honour given to countries that India views as close friends. The two nations also signed business deals worth billions, but there has been little traction in ties since.

This time around, the two countries agreed to look at ways to deepen economic ties, with India pledging to encourage Indian companies in pharmaceuticals, software and skill development to venture into Indonesia.

Still, bilateral trade has dipped over the last five years from US$21.44 billion (S$31 billion) in 2011 to US$15.95 billion last year, even though Indonesia remains India's largest trading partner in Asean. Analysts said that the time is now right for Indonesia and India - both large multicultural nations and among Asia's largest economies - to pursue closer ties.

"This is the best time for India to engage again with Indonesia. There is a commonality of views on the rule of law on freedom of navigation, on fighting piracy," said Professor Srikanth Kondapalli of Jawaharlal Nehru University.

"India's Act East policy cannot be successful without Indonesia."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2016, with the headline 'Maritime security drives push for closer India-Indonesia ties'. Print Edition | Subscribe