India and the BRI | Walking a Tightrope

The strategic position of Indonesia in the IOR makes it much sought after by both India and China

Smruti D

The Indian Ocean, which is regarded as the oldest long-distance trans-oceanic trading arena, has been facilitating trade between various countries for centuries. Ancient sea routes enabled vast trade networks which connected the eastern part of the world with the west. The route spanned from Java in Indonesia to parts of Africa. West Asia (Middle East) and China were also connected by the route.

Prime Minister Modi with Indonesian President Joko Widodo at Hyderabad House, New Delhi in 2016

Over the centuries, the sea routes came to be dominated by different communities at different points in time. In the 7th century, as the spread of Islam began, Muslim traders took control of almost the entire trade network. Before the advent of Islam, the archipelagic country of Indonesia belonged to Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms.

Thanks to cultural similarities, India and Indonesia are regarded as civilisational cousins. In the post-colonial world, too, when Indonesia won freedom from the Dutch, India was one of the first countries to recognise it as an independent state. During India’s first Republic day celebrations, President Sukarno was the chief guest. India and Indonesia were the key architects of the famous Bandung Conference, also known as the Asian-African Conference held in Indonesia in 1955 which subsequently led to the creation of the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM).

Even when the two countries had shared cultural commonalities, it did not stop bilateral relations from sailing in the wrong direction. Indian ties with Indonesia had started to crumble post 1960, also the year the navies of the two countries held their first-ever joint exercise. As the rivalry between India and China began, Indian ties with Indonesia took a beating. In 1961, Indonesia signed a Friendship Treaty with China and during the 1965 India-Pakistan war over Kashmir, Indonesia backed Pakistan by offering military help. The plan was to seize the Andaman and Nicobar islands to distract India’s attention from the Kashmir front. India feared that the Andaman and Nicobar islands were headed for a ‘triple squeeze’. Had this speculation come true, Indian and Indonesian navies would have fought one another.

According to Niranjan C. Oak, research scholar from Centre for Indo-Pacific Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, “Soft power does not work if it is not comprehensively backed by hard power. Unless you develop that kind of hard power, soft power is less likely to produce the desired result. Having said this, yes, India and Indonesia have an immense cultural affinity, and it is evident on the streets of Indonesia. But I think it creates more goodwill rather than soft power.” He adds that the evidence of power is in its manifestation and unless India develops credible hard power, it is very difficult for soft power to work on its own.


Indonesia’s Importance

In the wake of Chinese aggression, as India seeks to deepen ties with its neighbours and other countries world over, Indonesia becomes a country of great significance which must be stood in good stead. Indonesia has always maintained that it does not seek to tilt towards any one power, continuing to adapt the non-alignment policy. The country has maintained that it assumes a neutral stance in geo-political matters and that it will not let any country use its territory for military purposes. When it comes to India and China, trade may be one of the major reasons why Indonesia widely regards itself neutral as the two countries are Indonesia’s largest trading partners.

Asia Pacific, which is now called the Indo-Pacific, refers to the Indian and Pacific oceans between the East coast of Africa and America’s West coast. The reason why the current geo-political focus is on this region is because it is considered a hub of trade and energy supply across the Indo-Pacific with the vital strategic straits such as the straits of Malacca, Sunda and Lombok. The region has many developing and developed countries, with trade and military ambitions.

While Indo-Pacific is a hot-spot for power play of the world’s richest countries, it remains an area with no clear dominant power but only rising animosities between the contesting countries. The two regional rival powers, India and China, are dependent for trade and energy supply on these sea routes in the Asia-Pacific. Experts believe that the Indo-Pacific region is also crucial for India to find its ground in the contentious South China sea. India does not have a direct role to play in the South China sea but the region cannot completely be out of India’s strategic purview. This is because, one, with China claiming the entire sea, it would have military advantages, threatening the entire region. The other reason being the South China sea is also rich in minerals and natural gas reserves. India has at least USD 200 billion worth of trade passing from the region.

While these may be the technical reasons why Indo-Pacific and, specifically, Indonesia matter, the most important factor remains the rise of China. The US, Australia and Japan want to establish a stronger presence in the Asia-Pacific by placing their confidence in India.

The Quad or the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which is largely anti-China and whose participants include the US, Australia, Japan and India, is a forum for strategic talks and military exercises in the Indo-Pacific for a safe and secure Indo-Pacific. India, a part of the grouping, has maintained that it only wishes for a safe and secure Indo-Pacific and that the grouping is not against any country, a stance seen to pacify China.

Oak adds, “To understand the role of Indonesia in the Indo-Pacific, one must understand what Indo-Pacific is about. Geographically, the Indo-Pacific is an amalgamation of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, and if you look at the geography of Indonesia, it is exactly in the middle of these two oceans. Strategically, the location of Indonesia becomes important for the Indo-Pacific. Indonesia is the largest country of ASEAN, and it was this country that took the initiative for the ‘ASEAN outlook on the Indo-Pacific’. Indonesia was instrumental in lobbying to get its vision approved by other ASEAN countries. After all, ‘ASEAN outlook on the Indo-Pacific’ helped the 10-member grouping to be in the driver’s seat when it came to regional matters.”

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