India, Indonesia Draw Closer on Maritime Issues

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Jakarta on Wednesday. Image Credit: PIB

India and Indonesia have pledged to establish a “comprehensive strategic partnership” centred around maritime and defence cooperation.

The two countries released a joint statement on Wednesday following talks between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Jakarta.

Indonesia was the first leg of a tour that is also taking Modi to Malaysia and Singapore.

“Both leaders reaffirmed that Indonesia and India as strategic partners and maritime neighbours must work to further strengthen and broaden the already robust defence cooperation,” the release from India’s MEA read.

As if to underline India’s maritime imperatives, Modi was initially supposed to go to Sabang by ship from Port Blair. Though that plan was later cancelled, it evoked memory of Jawaharlal Nehru’s own sea journey from Port Blair to Indonesia in 1950. A ship-borne trip by Modi would have symbolised India’s maritime interests in a way that Nehru’s trip barely three years after independence simply didn’t.

In Jakarta, India and Indonesia inked a Defence Cooperation Agreement and committed themselves to stepping up cooperation between their respective navies and air forces.

‘India is a strategic defence partner,’ Widodo said during a press conference in Jakarta, adding that both sides would ‘continue to advance our cooperation in developing infrastructure, including at Sabang Island and the Andaman Islands’.

Sabang island lies just off the coast of northern Sumatra and is part of Indonesia’s Aceh province. Earlier in the month, Widodo’s minister for maritime affairs, Luhut Padjaitan had said India would invest in Sabang, a port deep enough to accommodate various vessels ‘including submarines’. Those last words indicate the naval component of India’s involvement in Sabang.

Though usually known as a tourist destination, Sabang is strategically located near the mouth of the Strait of Malacca, China’s main gateway into the Indian Ocean region. It is also less than 200 kilometres from Indira Point, the southernmost tip of India’s Great Nicobar Island.

In 2012, India opened a naval air station, INS Baaz, in Great Nicobar’s Campbell Bay. There have also been rumours about Indo-Japanese plans to lay an array of hydrophones between Indira Point and Aceh to detect PLA Navy vessels, especially submarines.

What Indonesia wants

Jakarta’s outreach to India is obviously driven by mutual concerns about China. While Indonesia is not party to the South China Sea disputes, Beijing’s nine-dash line does intrude into its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Last year, official Indonesian maps renamed a patch of water around its Natuna Islands, the ‘North Natuna Sea’. This in turn infuriated Beijing, which demanded Indonesia recognize the area as being part of the South China Sea.

As an archipelagic nation, Indonesia has been assertive about its maritime rights. Under Widodo, Indonesia’s coast guard and navy have zealously pursued fishing vessels of other ASEAN nations trespassing in Indonesia’s EEZ. Indonesian authorities have also publicly sunk seized vessels.

As part of its assertiveness, Indonesia is also seeking to renegotiate its EEZ boundary line with India, and presumably expects the agreement on Sabang will enable it to extract concessions from Delhi.

Jakarta’s strategy is ultimately to perform a balance act between the great powers jostling against each other in the Indo-Pacific.

A link in India’s maritime strategy

The agreement on Sabang is a spot of good news for India, which has seen its influence in the Indian Ocean wane in recent years. In the Maldives, President Abdulla Yameen has drawn closer to China and brutally cracked on his domestic opponents. And in the Seychelles, plans for a small naval facility  appear to be going nowhere.

On the bright side, India’s naval diplomacy is still going strong. Earlier this month, the Indian Navy conducted joint exercises with the Vietnam People’s Navy. Those same Indian warships are now headed into the Pacific Ocean where they will participate in this year’s edition of Exercise Malabar in Guam from June 6-15 along with the US Navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force.

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