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India-Indonesia: Towards Strategic Convergence

Panjaj Kumar Jha was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • January 24, 2011

    In the last few years, Indonesia has maintained its momentum of economic growth as well as decentralisation and strengthening of democratic institutions. Both India and Indonesia are keen to share best practices in governance, decentralisation at the rural level, and the effective allocation of funds for development. While issues of democracy, trade and services, reforms of the United Nations, regional security issues, as well as the rise of China will be discussed during President Yudhoyono’s visit, the main focus of the talks will be on furthering economic growth, production interdependence and cooperation in the services sector. At the same time, there will be a reiteration of the need for direct flights between the two countries and the promotion of tourism.

    This meeting becomes more significant in the wake of Obama’s visit to both nations around the same time last year, which underscores the role the two nations are expected to play not only at the global level but also for ensuring regional security. The question that arises at this point is whether the strategic partnership has been boosted by US initiatives or whether India and Indonesia have synergised their interests in such a way that they are perceived as natural partners, not only by the political set ups in the two countries, but also by their societies and media. Moreover, the further strengthening of this partnership will require a careful evaluation of defence and strategic issues.

    Post the Cold War, Indonesia saw India as a viable partner for acquiring spare parts, training pilots, and servicing its MiG-29 fighters. India-Indonesia defence relations were consequently revived in the early 1990s after more than three decades of an undeclared freeze dating from the early 1960s. India sought to concretise this budding relationship by proposing a draft memorandum of understanding on defence cooperation in 1995. Subsequently, in 2001, the two countries signed a bilateral agreement on cooperative activities in the field of defence, though it did not come into effect for six years because Indonesia delayed its ratification.

    Bilateral defence ties saw an up tick in the wake of the Indonesian president’s India visit in 2005. On this occasion, India and Indonesia agreed to hold an annual "strategic dialogue" at the level of senior officials. Indonesia also welcomed India's offer of defence cooperation and joint production of defence equipment. Reportedly, Indonesia also sought India’s cooperation in the field of rocket technology and raised the issue of India supplying radar and communication systems to enhance its naval capabilities for patrolling the Malacca Strait.

    It is known that India has been providing training to Indonesian military officers under the ITEC-I programme. At the conclusion of the first-ever Joint Defence Cooperation Committee (JDCC) meeting in Jakarta in June 2007, India agreed to further enhance its military-to-military engagement with Indonesia. The possibility of service-to-service talks is being explored, and the two sides have identified procurement and "co-production" of defence equipment as promising areas for cooperation based on the principle of "maximising comparative advantages." In an interview to The Hindu, Indonesian defence minister Juwono Sudarsono also expressed his country’s interest in accessing India’s know-how in "network centric warfare”.

    Possible areas of cooperation

    The training of pilots, anti-submarine warfare exercises, hydrographic mapping and joint production are areas of immense potential in terms of mutual defence cooperation. India could assist Indonesia in upgrading its Supadio air base which is an aerial surveillance centre for meeting any traditional and non traditional exigencies.

    Deepening linkages between radical groups in Indonesia and Pakistan is a matter of concern for both countries. There is a need to enhance cooperation in exchanging intelligence about terror outfits and their cadres. This becomes more important given the appearance last year of Ál Qaeda in Aceh, given that Aceh is in the close vicinity of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. India can also learn lessons from the Indonesian Anti-Terrorism Attachment (ATA) unit for coordinating action and cooperation with the civil society.

    India and Indonesia also need to keep long term strategic perspectives in mind, especially with regard to the increasing Chinese naval footprint in the Indian Ocean. China has been trying to build naval bases in Myanmar and Timor Leste, which directly impinges on the strategic interests of India and Indonesia. Cooperation is thus becoming important, especially given the Indian maritime doctrine’s declaration that the entire Indian Ocean region, from the Persian Gulf to the Straits of Malacca, is its “legitimate area of interest.” Further, the Maritime Strategy document released in 2009 listed the Sunda and Lombok straits as falling within the navy’s area of strategic interest. According to the document the two straits are major choke points and of vital strategic importance for India. The Lombok Strait with a minimum channel width of 11.5 nm, has sufficient width and depth and is far less congested than the Malacca Strait. Ships too large for the Strait of Malacca use this passage. An alternate route to the Malacca and Lombok Straits is the Sunda Strait, which is 50 nm long and 15 nm wide at its northeast entrance. Large ships avoid passage through this strait due to depth restrictions and strong currents.1 Cooperation with Indonesia is a prerequisite to enable the navy’s operations in these waters. In fact, joint coastal monitoring has already begun since October 2010, and there is a case for increasing cooperation between their respective coastal security agencies as well as for the conduct of joint maritime exercises in the Indian Ocean as well as in Indonesian waters.

    Given that India has begun to acquire US weapons platforms, it can learn from the Indonesian experience of operating American military equipment. For instance, Indonesia has been operating F-16 aircraft as well as earlier versions of C-130s, while India has only recently procured the C-130 J heavy lift aircraft and is in the process of choosing a new fighter aircraft from a list that includes the F-16.

    India needs a defence export policy that will win it long term strategic friends. India can supply light combat helicopters, military trucks and also radar to the Indonesian military.

    There is also a need for regular Track-II dialogue between think tanks and economic institutes of the two countries to generate understanding and better perspectives about each other’s security interests and concerns.

    • 1. India’s Maritime Military Strategy, Integrated Headquarters, Ministry of Defence (Navy), 2009, pp.25-28