Public Diplomacy Public Diplomacy

India and Indonesia: Twins of a Kind

October 08, 2013

By Archis Mohan

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is scheduled to pay a state visit to Indonesia from October 10 to 12. The visit will deepen the India and Indonesia strategic partnership that Prime Minister Singh and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono have nursed since 2005 to make New Delhi - Jakarta one of the most thriving bilateral relationships of the region.

It would also in all likelihood be the Indian PM's last meeting with Yudhoyono as the President of his country. 'SBY', as Yudhoyono is popularly known in Indonesia, would step down from presidency in early 2014 after having completed his two terms. Indonesia is scheduled to elect its new President in April 2014, around the time that India is likely to hold its general elections.

This, therefore, becomes an important visit for both Singh and Yudhoyono to complete unfinished tasks, particularly in the sectors of trade, security, maritime and defence cooperation. It has been under their stewardship that India-Indonesia inked a strategic partnership agreement in 2005. Both had taken over the reins of respective governments within months of each other. Singh was sworn in as the Prime Minister in May 2004 while Yudhoyono defeated Megawati Sukarnoputri in a presidential election in October of that year.

The two leaders recognised the potential of the India-Indonesia bilateral relations and have worked steadfastly to achieve their vision of closer ties. Prime Minister Singh visited Jakarta in April 2005 for the 50th anniversary of the Afro-Asian Bandung Conference. Yudhoyono visited New Delhi in November 2005 where the two PMs inked the strategic partnership agreement. The India-Indonesia bilateral trade increased five times since the inking of the strategic partnership agreement to US $20 billion in 2012-13. Bilateral trade has hit a trough because of the global financial situation but is expected to meet the target of US $ 25 billion by 2015.

Both Singh and Yudhoyono have ensured the vibrancy in New Delhi-Jakarta bilateral relations. Prime Minister Singh has visited Indonesia twice, including in 2005 and 2011. Similarly, Yudhoyono has been to New Delhi thrice, including in November 2005, as the Chief Guest for Republic Day in January 2011 and later to attend the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit in December 2012. Yudhoyono's 2011 visit was significant as Indonesia and India signed several important agreements on security, trade and investments, connectivity and cultural cooperation.

Since 2005, Singh and Yudhoyono have synergised a relationship that has historical roots. Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata continue to be popular in Indonesia. The influence of ancient Indian culture can be seen in Indonesia's culture and architecture.

The Buddhist Borobudur and Prambanan Shiva temple complexes, both constructed in the 9th century, are examples of the once thriving cultural and trade relations between Indonesia and India. The word for soldier in Bahasa is kshatriya. In later centuries, merchants and missionaries took Islam from India to Indonesia to give the religion in that region a distinctive blend of Sufi mysticism.

Today, Indonesia is home to nearly 13 percent of the world's Muslim population, which makes it the most populous Muslim nation on Earth. India at 10.9 percent has the third largest Muslim population in the world. Also, India is the world's largest democracy and Indonesia's its third largest.

India has tried to keep cultural links alive with organising frequent cultural exchanges through its cultural centres in Jakarta and Bali and Sanskrit and Indian studies chairs in Indonesian universities. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has in the past renovated the Prambanan temple complex. Jakarta has done its bit to renew traditional ties with its contributions to the setting up of the Nalanda University.

In modern times, it was the friendship between India's first PM Jawaharlal Nehru and first Indonesian President Sukarno that sowed the seeds for the close friendship between the two countries that we see today. Nehru championed the Indonesian cause as the infant nation struggled to end Dutch imperialism.

In March-April 1947, Nehru hosted the first Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi to discuss the Indonesian problem. It brought together leaders of independence movements from across Asia, and was the first effort to forge an Asian unity. Biju Patnaik, later to become the chief minister of Orissa, responded to Nehru's call to pilot his aircraft to Indonesia to rescue vice president Mohammad Hatta, and PM Sutan Sjahrir from the Dutch to fly them to New Delhi to attend the conference. Years later, Sukarno made Patnaik an honorary Bumiputra.

Nehru followed the 1947 event by hosting the Indonesia Conference in January 1949 to discuss the Dutch aggression on the nascent republic. These two conferences were precursors to the Bandung Conference of 1955 that Indonesia hosted. It was the first Afro-Asian event where both Nehru and Sukarno invoked the "spirit of Asia" and laid the foundation for the non-aligned movement.

In more contemporary times, the unveiling of India's 'Look East Policy' in 1991 and with India becoming a partner of the ASEAN helped New Delhi and Jakarta revive ties which were disrupted when Indonesia came under military rule between 1965 to 1998. Indonesia is the most populous, largest and the most influential of the 10-ASEAN member states.

Last few years have been marked by strengthening of defence and security cooperation. Defence minister A.K. Antony visited Indonesia in 2012. India and Indonesia are working together on CORPATs, anti-piracy operations and maintenance of security of sea-lanes. The two have signed an extradition treaty, a mutual legal assistance treaty and working towards an agreement on transfer of sentenced persons. There is increased cooperation in counter-terrorism, curbing drug trafficking and cyber crimes.

The two countries have increased maritime cooperation. Indonesia is India's maritime neighbour. The western most tip of the Sumatran island, Banda-Aceh , is barely 90 nautical miles from India's easternmost point of Andaman and Nicobar islands. The two countries are taking steps for closer collaborator at IOR-ARC and recently held a trilateral track II dialogue on the Indian Ocean related issues. Apart from the two, the trilateral dialogue comprised Australia.

On the trade and economic front, Indian companies have significant investments in Indonesia's infrastructure, power, textiles, steel, automotive, mining, banking and FMCG sectors. Several Indonesian companies have also invested in Indian infrastructure projects.

India is the largest buyer of crude palm oil from Indonesia and imports coal, minerals, rubber, pulp and paper. India exports refined petroleum products, maize, commercial vehicles, telecommunication equipment, oil seeds, animal feed, cotton, steel products and plastics to Indonesia. Prominent Indian companies in Indonesia are Tata Power, Reliance, Adani, L&T, GMR, GVK, Videocon, Punj Lloyd, Aditya Birla, Jindal Stainless Steel, ESSAR, TVS, Bajaj, BEML, Godrej, Balmer & Lawrie, SBI, Bank of Inida, etc.

There are around 100,000 Indonesians of Indian origin in Indonesia mostly concentrated in Greater Jakarta, Medan, Surabaya and Bandung. There are around 10,000 Indian nationals living in Indonesia.

But there is much potential for stronger India-Indonesia ties given the deep historical links and a shared recent past of fighting imperialism together. As Rabindranath Tagore said nearly a hundred years back in Java, "I see India everywhere but I find it nowhere."

(The views expressed above are the personal views of the author)

Archis Mohan is foreign policy editor


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