All India Radio (AIR) IAS UPSC – Strengthening Diplomatic ties between India and Indonesia

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  • June 11, 2019
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Strengthening Diplomatic ties between India and Indonesia


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TOPIC: General Studies 2

  • Effect of policies and politics of developing countries on India’s interests

India and Indonesia have been gradually enhancing their security and political ties.

  • The two signed a strategic partnership agreement in 2005 that started an annual strategic dialogue.
  • The next year, they ratified a defense cooperation agreement, initially signed in 2001, which focused on areas of defense supplies and technology, as well as on joint projects.
  • The two have signed an extradition treaty and also a “mutual legal assistance treaty” for gathering and exchanging information to enforce their laws.
  • Joint naval exercises, patrols, and regular port calls by their respective navies have become a regular feature of the India-Indonesia relationship in recent years. India has also become a major source of military hardware for Jakarta.

Such cooperation is a natural result of geography. Indonesia’s location, combined with its naval forces, allow it to work effectively with India to ensure security in the sea lanes of communication between Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. Together, they control the entry point from the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean to the Strait of Malacca.

Given India and Indonesia’s size, their historical ties and mutual proclivity for pursuing an independent foreign policy, the trajectory of their bilateral relationship holds significant weight for the evolving regional architecture in Asia. Moreover, as two of the world’s largest democracies with the largest Muslim populations, the development of these two countries will have much to say about addressing the alleged dichotomy of Islam and liberal democracy.

History of False Starts

India and Indonesia have a complex history, which has led to several false starts in their relationship. Indonesia and India maintained a long history of interaction in the domains of religion, language, art, and architecture until the 15th century. However, exchanges were not always so benign. For instance, in the 11th century, during India’s Chola Dynasty, King Rajendra I conducted several naval raids of Srivijaya (centered in Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula), which are believed to have been carried out to protect Chola India’s trade with China, then under the rule of the Song Dynasty.

Following its emergence as an independent nation-state, India under the country’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, re-engaged with Southeast Asia under his grand vision of an “Asiatic Federation of Nations.” This manifested with India convening the Asian Relations Conference in 1947 and a conference in 1949 to voice opposition to Dutch “Police Action” in Indonesia. This phase of Nehruvian “Asianism” also found expression in the “Bandung spirit” of 1955, in which Nehru and Indonesian President Sukarno were key architects. This became the precursor for the Non-Aligned Movement and the Asian-African Summit. India also played a prominent role in the establishment of the Indonesian armed forces and both countries held their first joint naval exercises in July 1960.

However, from the 1960s India’s role in Southeast Asia withered as Asian solidarity perished while the regional security architecture fractured along the Cold War divide. This was made evident by the creation of the U.S.-led Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and the 1962 war between China and India. While Sino-Indian relations deteriorated, Indonesia turned toward China with the conclusion of a Friendship Treaty in 1961. This contributed to an increasingly confrontational relationship between India and Indonesia, as evidenced by Indonesia’s support for Pakistan during the 1965 India-Pakistan war, which even prompted speculation of a possible naval confrontation between India and Indonesia over the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Tensions were further inflamed by India’s cordial relations with Malaya in the midst of Indonesia’s Konfrontasi(confrontation) policy.

Relations between India and Indonesia further deteriorated in the 1980s as Jakarta became concerned about Indian naval modernization efforts and ambitions to build up its military capabilities on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which at the closest point are approximately 80 nautical miles from the Indonesian island of Sumatra. This was perceived as a means for India and its erstwhile ally the Soviet Union to project naval power into the South China Sea.

These concerns would eventually be alleviated as India stepped up confidence-building measures with regional powers. Such measures included Indian participation in multilateral forums such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and CSCAP (Council for Security Cooperation in Asia-Pacific), as well as the “Milan” biennial naval meetings hosted by the Indian Navy since 1995, the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation established in 1997, and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium established in 2008, of which Indonesia is also a member. Bilaterally, India began joint naval exercises with Indonesia off Surabaya in 1989 and in the Andaman Sea in 1991, which has been followed by coordinated patrols (CORPAT) on their respective sides of the International Maritime Boundary Line in the Andaman Sea since 2002.

Both countries have also established several bilateral agreements and exchanges aimed at strengthening strategic cooperation. This includes Foreign Office consultations since 2013, the Joint Defense Cooperation Committee set up in 2007, a New Strategic Partnership in 2005, a Memorandum of Understanding on combating terrorism in 2004, the India-Indonesia Joint Commission co-chaired by both countries’ foreign ministers constituted in 2003, and a Bilateral Agreement on Cooperative Activities in the Field of Defense in 2001. Both countries also maintain extradition and Mutual Legal Assistance treaties aimed at strengthening cooperation in combating transnational crime and terrorism. Indonesia is India’s second-largest trading partner in Southeast Asia while the India Business Forum established in Jakarta in 2012 aims to deepen economic engagement.

Defense Ties

India and Indonesia have a long historical relationship, strategic alignment has been a more recent development and has not been without its challenges as well. That said, both countries have been trying to strengthen their defense relationship through varying means, including upgrading dialogues and revising their defense cooperation agreement.

India and Indonesia are stressing the importance of existing counter-terror mechanisms and strengthening intelligence cooperation systems amid rising violence and spread of radical ideologies. New Delhi and Jakarta have also put in place an arrangement of Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty and instrument of extradition to deal with terror operatives who are a threat to both countries.

Maritime Collaboration

Both countries have interests that are aligned somewhat in terms of addressing the rise of China and making advances in the maritime domain. As a result, it is no coincidence that we continue to see defense-related and maritime-related developments continue to take shape between India and Indonesia. To take just one example, there has been an agreement signed between the two countries to advance economic engagements between Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Aceh and North Sumatra Province. This agreement envisions joint development of the region to promote cruise and eco-tourism, start air transport linkages by introducing commercial flights between Indonesia and Port Blair, and sea transportation connectivity in the form of RoRo vessel shipping to facilitate trade between the two regions. These have the potential to create a constituency on both sides that could propel the economic aspects of the bilateral relationship.

In another example, in order to push the economic relationship between the two sides, Indonesia hosted the 2nd India Indonesia Infrastructure Forum (IIIF). The first such Forum between the two sides was held with elaborate plans for regional connectivity in terms of economy, infrastructure and energy links.  India has also agreed to join hands with Indonesia in developing a deep-sea port in Sabang. The port will clearly give India a bigger foothold in the region while enhancing the maritime links between India and Southeast Asia.

Today, India and Indonesia have the opportunity to build a peaceful and prosperous “maritime mandala” in the heart of the Indo-Pacific through a number of steps. These include developing shipping links, building new ports, promoting a blue economy in the Andaman Sea, and advancing cooperative security framework for the Malacca Straits and the Bay of Bengal.


The strategic imperatives as well as new developments at play in the India-Indonesia relationship suggest that we are likely to see the two sides continue to grow closer in the coming years. While their complex history of interaction demonstrates that shared interests do not always translate into convergent policies, India and Indonesia’s regional ambitions, growing maritime orientations, and apprehensions over China’s rise demonstrate that they are well positioned to develop a broad-based partnership. As such, the trajectory of the India-Indonesia relationship provides a harbinger for the evolving regional architecture of Asia.

But at the same time, expectations about this new partnership must be tempered with reality. There are no shortage of challenges as well, including New Delhi’s continued lack of nuanced understanding on how Southeast Asian nations like Indonesia operate as well as India’s own changes in its China policy in the face of complications. These serve as important reminders that even though there are larger strategic interests binding them together, there are also limitations.

Connecting the Dots:

  1. Can Indonesia and India come together to usher in a new era in bilateral ties? Disucuss.

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