India, Indonesia ties: Maritime cooperation is key takeaway from President Joko Widodo's visit

Closer maritime cooperation between India and Indonesia is the key takeaway from President Joko Widodo first visit to Delhi.

Though China was not mentioned, the stock diplomatic phrases used in a statement issued after talks between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the visiting dignitary, is a clear give away. The same language was used when Modi and US President Barack Obama issued a joint statement on the South China Sea after his 2015 visit. Freedom of navigation, reference to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), are all there.

Clearly all Asian countries, including Indonesia which does not have a maritime dispute with China, (unlike Japan, Phillipines, Vietnam, Taiwan), are wary of Beijing’s growing overreach in the East and South China Seas and the larger Pacific and Indian Ocean region. Land reclamation and fortifications to ensure that airstrips are available for Chinese fighter jets have alarmed the world.

 India, Indonesia ties: Maritime cooperation is key takeaway from President Joko Widodos visit

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Indonesian President Joko Widodo on Monday. PTI

"Both leaders committed to maintaining a maritime legal order based on principles of international law, as reflected notably in the UNCLOS,’’ a statement on maritime cooperation released after talks in Hyderabad House on Monday said. The references cannot be missed.

Like every nation, India and Indonesia want to ensure that the sea lanes of the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region, through which trillions of dollars worth of trade passes must run smoothly. "Both leaders recognised the importance of freedom of navigation and overflight on the high seas, unimpeded lawful commerce, as well as resolving maritime disputes by peaceful means,’’ the statement went on to add.

This emphasis on peaceful resolution of disputes and respect for international law comes in the face of China’s refusal of an international arbitration tribunal which had earlier this year ruled against China in a case with the Phillipines about Chinese fishermen landing in what the tribunal ruled was Filipino waters. Beijing refused to accept the arbitration ruling.

The fear of an economic powerhouse like China, which now has both the funds and the naval and military might to coerce smaller neighbours is making Asian nations look to building a network of maritime alliances among themselves. This is why, Asians generally had welcomed Obama’s pivot to Asia policy. A strong American presence could act as a confidence booster for small Asian nations.

India on its part is looking to build maritime cooperation with all its Indian Ocean neighbours as well as countries like Vietnam. In 2015, Modi visited Seychelles, Sri Lanka and Mauritius in an attempt to shore up naval ties with these island nations.

After talks with Widodo, Modi in his media address, said: "We agreed to prioritise defence and security cooperation. As two important maritime nations that are also neighbours, we agreed to cooperate to ensure the safety and security of the sea lanes, in disaster response and environmental protection.’’

"The joint statement on maritime cooperation outlines the agenda of our engagement in this field,’’ the prime minister added.

Modi and Widodo directed their respective defence ministers to upgrade the existing defence cooperation to a substantive bilateral defence cooperation pact. At present, the Indian and Indonesian Army and Naval officers of both nations meet regularly for talks. Now the Airforce officers will also be included. There will also be increased defence exercises, including among special forces as well preliminary work on joint production of defence equipment and technology transfer, obviously from the Indian side.

Modi as prime minister has been paying a lot of attention to naval cooperation and the Indian Navy now holds regular exercises with more and more countries. Indian ships are now regularly visiting ports across Aisa, Africa and Europe. The highlight of defence cooperation are the Malabar exercises between India and the US Navies which started in 2002. Japan had once been part of the exercises, but stayed out after China’s vehement protests. But from 2016, Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) have joined the US and Indian Navies for trilateral manouevres at sea. Malabar exercises will be held annually between the three navies, alternately in the Western Pacific (near Japan) and the Indian Ocean. This decision not to heed Chinese protests was taken by the Modi government.

Since 2002, India and Indonesia have been expanding maritime cooperation by holding joint coordinated naval patrols biannually. This got a much needed political boost on Monday with Modi and Widodo calling for greater closer maritime cooperation.

"Maritime cooperation has a wider reach than mere naval strategy," said Gautam Mukhopadhya, former ambassador to Myanmar, who was also MEA’s representative in the Defence Ministry.  "Widodo is completey geared to boosting Indonesia's economic potential. Strategically he wants to make sure that the scattered smaller islands of the country are well protected and so cooperation with the Indian Navy will also help in capacity building,’’ the former envoy added.

"Our partnership will also extend to combating terrorism, organised crime, drugs and human trafficking,’’ Modi said, signaling the cooperation is not just limited to defence.

A memorandum of understanding between India and Indonesia is on the cards to accelerate maritime cooperation in maritime safety and security, and promotion of maritime industries, as one of the important pillars towards enhancing the bilateral relationship. The two nations also spoke of the need to combat and eliminate "illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing" and recognised transnational organised fisheries crime as one of the emerging crimes, which has become an ever-growing threat to the world.

Updated Date: Dec 13, 2016 15:39:08 IST