Indonesia, India pledge closer maritime ties

NEW DELHI (AFP) - The leaders of Indonesia and India pledged greater maritime cooperation on Monday (Dec 12), as Asia's two largest democracies sought to counter China's rising influence in the region.

On his first ever visit to India, Indonesian President Joko Widodo met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi where both stressed the need for freedom of navigation rights and urged peaceful resolution in the disputed South China Sea.

"As strategic partners and maritime neighbours, the two leaders emphasised the importance of further consolidating the security and defence cooperation," a joint statement said.

"Regarding the South China Sea, the two sides stressed the importance of resolving disputes by peaceful means, in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law." China is at loggerheads with some South-east Asian nations over its claim to large swathes of the South China Sea.

Unlike some, Jakarta has long maintained it has no maritime disputes with China in the South China Sea and does not contest ownership of reefs or islets there.

But Beijing's expansive claims overlap Indonesia's exclusive economic zone - waters where a state has the right to exploit resources - around the Natunas, a remote scattering of islands that are rich fishing grounds.

In June, Widodo toured the islands on a warship, in a move seen as sending a strong message to China to respect Indonesian sovereignty.

India, which holds maritime drills with several countries including the United States, has no claims in the South China Sea, but both Delhi and Jakarta back freedom of navigation in the waterway.

Widodo and Modi also agreed to step up security dialogue and increase joint exercises.

Separately, Widodo called on local firms to set up shop in Indonesia to increase investment in its pharmaceutical, IT and auto industries.

Indonesia is India's biggest trading partner in south-east Asia, with two-way commerce at US$16 billion (S$22.9 billion) in 2015-16 and Indian investments totalling about US$15 billion.