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Indonesia in India’s Look East Policy

Baladas Ghoshal is a former Professor of Southeast Asia and South-West Pacific Studies and Chairman of the Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
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  • January 20, 2011

    Executive Summary

    1. India views Indonesia, the largest country in Southeast Asia, as a strategic partner that can play an important role in its Look East Policy. The two are close geographical neighbours who share a maritime boundary and a mutual stake in each other’s progress, prosperity, stability and territorial integrity.
    2. With an archipelagic coastline of 54,716 kms, stretching 5271 kms east to west and 2210 kms north to south dominating key international waterways - the Malacca, Sunda, Lombok and Makassar straits, Indonesia controls all or part of the very major waterway between the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. More than half of all international shipping trade traverses these waterways. Given their locations and capabilities India and Indonesia have a critical role to play as sentinels guarding these vital lifelines in the interest of their own security. As the interests of the two countries converge, they have a stake in shaping the emerging security architecture of Asia so that it is not dominated by any single country. This is even more important at a time when the rise of China and its recent assertiveness in South China Sea through its creeping occupation of territories claimed by some other ASEAN states is creating strategic uncertainty in the region.
    3. As pluralistic democracies and developing societies, we face similar challenges. The key political challenge before both India and Indonesia, though different in specifics, is how to build stable, democratic state structures in the midst of a rising tide of expectations for better life and greater liberty. The success of Indonesia, as a pluralistic and democratic state is essential not only for the peace and prosperity of the Southeast Asian region, but also for the security of India. India can help Indonesia build capacities, through its expertise in the IT sector in its democratic transformation, particularly in respect of promoting grassroots democracy and institutions for mediating centre-province relations. As the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, Indonesia has a key role to play in demonstrating the virtues of tolerance and mutual respect in a diverse, multi-ethnic polity.
    4. Indonesia is not only the most populous country in the region but also has the largest Muslim population in the world. Both India and Indonesia are facing rising threats from Islamic militancy and terrorism arising from the changing nature of Islam. Indonesia has done well in fighting terrorism. Most Indonesians practice a syncretic, moderate form of Islam. Yet a small band of homegrown extremists is waging a bloody jihad. The growing popularity of Islam makes it all the more imperative for India to help Indonesia in its democratisation process, for pluralism and democracy can be major bulwarks against militancy and exclusive Islam. The curbing of terrorism, therefore, has emerged as a basis for cooperation between India and Indonesia.
    5. An area where India can help Indonesia and in which it has a comparative advantage is in the field of higher education and human resources. India should also attract bright and meritorious Indonesian students by opening the doors of our premier institutions, like the IITs, IIMs, Delhi School of Economics and universities like JNU by reserving a few seats exclusively for them. The dividend from such a policy will be enormous, as the products of these institutions would eventually emerge as critical elites in decision-making in Indonesian government and corporate life, and India will surely strike a familiar chord for them.
    6. Yet another area in which India’s soft power can be promoted in Southeast Asia in general and Indonesia in particular, is its culture. Indian culture is an inseparable part of Indonesian customs, and our cultures and values are closely related, given 2000 years of civilisational contacts between the two countries. If carefully pursued, our cultural diplomacy can further cement the bond between the two countries based on our pluralist traditions and our mutual need for preserving ‘unity in diversity’- the basic philosophy of our states. Cultural interactions should extend to people-to-people contacts and academic exchanges with collaborative research projects of common interest.
    7. India and Indonesia have economic complementarities with great potential for enhancing cooperation between the two countries. Indonesia is India’s second largest export market in ASEAN (after Singapore) and one of its major trading partners in the region. The recovery of the Indonesian economy after the Asian financial crisis coupled with political change gave a fresh impetus to the economic relations. There is a fresh wave of Indian investments in Indonesia as India does not evoke the same anxiety that Chinese investment does. Trade between the two countries has already gone up to $11.7 billion in 2010
    8. The security cooperation between India and Indonesia could include human resource training, exchange of officers, joint border patrols, counter terrorism and battling sea piracy. The 21st century is inevitably the Asian century and in shaping that century, India, Indonesia and Southeast Asian countries are destined to play a major role to ensure peace, stability and prosperity for the region.

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