Narendra Modi's Indonesia visit: Jakarta key to countering Chinese assertiveness, securing India's position as global power
Indonesia has both the capability and credibility in making significant contributions towards countering Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region.
While the shifting of the global balance of power towards the East is in New Delhi's interests, India is not unmindful of the implications of China's growing dominance on regional geopolitics. Whether taking inflexible positions on the long-standing border dispute, or denying India a seat at the Nuclear Suppliers Group or shielding Pakistan-based terrorists from UN sanctions, Beijing's actions have often exerted a negative influence on India-China ties. No surprise, India is pushing for deeper partnerships with many Southeast Asian countries while strengthening its existing bonds with the United States.
New Delhi's attitude to India's security has largely been shaped by the way in which the turbulent frontiers left over from the British era have interacted with an increasingly challenging internal political environment. Partly because of India's security circumstances and partly due to geographical imperatives, the Narendra Modi government's attempt to reconnect India to its traditional maritime neighbourhood, particularly in the 'Indo-Pacific' region, is aimed at enlarging India's geopolitical, geostrategic and geoeconomic horizons by ensuring free movement of people, goods and ideas.
The freedom of navigation, availability of port infrastructure and unhindered access to markets are mandatory for this purpose. Hence, the major focus of Modi's forthcoming visit to Indonesia is to show that both countries are close maritime neighbours bound by history, culture and strategy. The shortest distance between India's Andaman Islands and Indonesia's Aceh is not more than 80 nautical miles.
Strategically, Indonesia is equally important to the US and China as its location across vital Indo-Pacific chokepoints has helped Jakarta secure Chinese investment without showing any evidence of a tilt towards Beijing. As all conventional precepts in Indonesian foreign policy are undergoing transformations with the country trying to position itself as a rising power in an uncertain Indo-Pacific, New Delhi figures as a credible strategic partner of Jakarta is its revamped foreign-policy vision.
Indonesia is one of the very few countries in the region that has both the capability and credibility in making significant contributions towards countering Chinese assertiveness. Indonesia's reported move to give India economic and military access to Sabang island, which is strategically close to the Strait of Malacca, is a shot in the arm for the Modi government's 'Act East' policy. Preservation and promotion of Indian imprint in Indonesia and the East Asian region, through shared culture and religion, is an integral part of this initiative.
An increasing regional interest in the maritime theatre offers greater scope for India to participate in efforts to promote regional security. India would like to see the Indo-Pacific economies substantially improving their internal as well as external physical connectivity, without such infrastructure ending up crafting discriminatory rules of access and producing political economies capable of undermining democratic aspirations of the people living in these countries.
There are genuine concerns over the real intent of China's massive investment in infrastructure projects in areas where there is no visible commercial benefit. There are apprehensions of the emerging infrastructure in India's broader maritime neighbourhood being utilised for military purposes.
Indonesia's new maritime strategy and overtures towards the Indian Ocean are visible manifestations of Jakarta's changing diplomatic posture. Indonesia, which has questioned China's unilateral claims on the South China Sea, is not very enthusiastic about the Beijing-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Indonesian president Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, wants to promote a plan called the 'Global Maritime Fulcrum', which includes a commitment to Indo-Pacific sea lanes in order to balance the BRI. Washington's support for Jokowi's maritime policy has aroused the hope of closer strategic alignment between New Delhi and Jakarta. Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation, showing bonhomie with India also sends a significant message to the global community on the issue of Kashmir and jihadist terrorism.
Gone are the days when India was a passive observer of East Asian multilateralism. Now, it wants to be an active contributor to the regional balance of power. Although it is not India's role to dictate the nature and scope of Indo-Pacific security cooperation, through discussion and experiment, India can definitely find areas where increased cooperation will serve mutual security interests.
In the words of Luhut Pandjaitan, Indonesia's minister for maritime affairs, "India and Indonesia relations are important to the balance of power in Asia." Clearly, Indonesia is keen to ensure that Beijing is effectively prevented to move ahead on its current antagonistic trajectory.
At a time when India plans to redefine its strategic space in the Indo-Pacific region, New Delhi cannot avoid the burdens that come with being a major power.
As China, with deeper pockets, is trying to undercut India's geographical advantages in the Indian Ocean region, New Delhi must invest greater economic and military resources to demonstrate its credibility as a contributor to the Indo-Pacific balance, through enhanced joint military exercises, patrolling, humanitarian missions, as well as inclusive infrastructure connectivity projects. These measures are likely to be perceived favourably by the countries of the region.
Diplomatically speaking, India remains committed to multilateralism in East Asia. However, many in India are sceptical of ASEAN's ability to manage its territorial disputes with China without undermining the policy cohesiveness and political solidarity of the grouping. With ASEAN unlikely to hold China to international norms and rules, India's best option would be relying on strengthening bilateral relationships with key ASEAN countries, including Indonesia.
In fact, recent years have seen Jakarta giving a marginal position to ASEAN in Indonesia's regional diplomacy as ASEAN is seen as too feeble to effectively stand for the country's national interests in the Indo-Pacific. Although Indonesia is not a part of the emerging 'Quadrilateral' coalition comprising India, Japan, the US and Australia, Jakarta's support would be vital for ensuring greater maritime cooperation and coordination in the Indo-Pacific.
A bewildering mix of assertive, antagonistic and sometimes accommodating stances demonstrated by Beijing has often constrained India's policy options vis-à-vis China. Maintaining the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific can provide the best insurance for India's positioning as a global power.
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