The Rekindling Old Flame of Indonesia-India Relations

by Habibah H. Hermanadi, Board of Editor IRregular

The two largest democracies were the frontier of South-South spirit during the Cold War, representing the voice of Non-Aligned newly independent nations to unite and resist the contesting hegemony from neither bloc. The significant discord between the two countries happened during Indo-Pakistan war in 1965, where Indonesia offered naval supports for Pakistan. Later on, the action was taken by Indonesia resulting in the creation of shelf boundary agreement in 1973 between India and Indonesia which is a short boundary between Great Nicobar Island and Sumatra. Furthermore, ever since then, the relations went cold; the two became pragmatic in conducting their relationship intertwined among other global affairs but never exclusive. Mainly because domestic political changes that took place replacing Nehruvian style of foreign policy and Soekarno’s anti-west demeanour.

Moving forward, not until 2005 the bridge was rebuilt, as Manmohan Singh tried to reopen India as part of its economic liberalisation efforts. The former Prime Minister extended the bilateral relations of the nations through establishing a Strategic Partnership framework. While Narendra Modi had attended various visits in Southeast Asia under ASEAN-India partnerships narrative, the recent state visit last May push further the bilateral agenda into specific notions for the two nations. In addition to that, what the meeting had achieved had been more specified in comparison to when Jokowi visited India in 2016 and brought up the foundation of the two nations maritime cooperation through a statement of intent.

Some of the ways of understanding the recent meeting can be perceived in how Modi approached Indonesia through the shared cultural and historical experiences, reigniting collective memory of the past in anchoring the foundation of stronger relations. It is interesting to see, the instruments to cement this relationship was somewhat holistic, the Pragmatic Prime Minister has been using cultural jargons and keywords to provoke melancholic narratives between the two countries. Modi’s Diaspora strategy and strength in reaching out to Indian descents living in Indonesia, especially when there at least around 100,000 Indonesians of Indian origin , and Modi mentioned it in the implementation of 30 days free of visa policy for Indonesians. The grand idea was to familiarise the two similar countries especially in the arising of “New India”.

In the past, India has been approaching Southeast Asia especially ASEAN. The recent 25 years celebration of the relations between India and ASEAN signified India’s endeavour to the region. Moreover, India has always had strong ties to the Mekong groups through Mekong-Ganga cooperation in the last couple of years. In this context, the deepening relations India bid towards Indonesia might be one of the ways in completing the puzzle pieces needed for India in facing the great South China Sea dispute and the imminent Belt and Road Initiative. Considering the altering position, Indonesia has for the People’s Republic of China throughout the year and to seize the uncertainty of United States. Modi moves forward and secures its position through assuring good relations with one of the prominent maritime players in the region that is Indonesia. In which resulted in shared objectives in maritime cooperation. While for defence India has a more mature relationship with Singapore in Southeast Asia, but substantive bilateral security cooperation is only logical if Delhi aimed to get Jakarta warming up on the idea of allowing naval ships in Sabang Island. If the framework was set, then the next step means putting forward tangible outcomes in the new outlook for both sides in regard of knowledge or technology transfer through training, exchanges, and better engagement in the defence industries.

The shared ambitions of the two emerging powers are apparent; Jokowi has his vision in making Indonesia as the Maritime Fulcrum while Narendra Modi’s revamped Act East policy drives India into becoming a more prominent actor in the international political stage. Reintroducing these nations reignited the lost South-South old flame coming from charismatic leaders, sending us back to 1955 flashbacks wrapped in contemporary global politics flavour. Nonetheless, the challenge for both nations relies heavily upon the long-term commitment from both parties. Considering that the two countries are facing the upcoming general elections in 2019, there is no guarantee for both sides to share the same maritime spirit and foreign policy views. Naturally, strategic partnership carries the vision of state leaders’ foreign policy perception which might differ once the new leaders come in power. For now, the Shared Vision of India-Indonesia Maritime Cooperation shall give enough room for the relationship to grow; however, it is only fair for the rest to see whether the old flame was just a heat of the moment or whether the two can work it out.