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Revisiting past, facing future

PM Modi’s visit to Indonesia can re-energise an ancient partnership.

Written by Gurjit Singh |
Updated: May 26, 2018 12:03:50 am
Prime Minister Narendra Modi Indonesia visit Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will make his first visit to Indonesia next week, the first by an Indian PM since 2013. PM Modi has been to half the ASEAN countries and the biggest of them, Indonesia, finally gets its turn.

Modi’s summit with Indonesian President Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, is an important one. They have met annually since their first meeting at the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Myanmar in 2014, the year when both were elected. Both India and Indonesia have among the world’s largest Muslim populace, which are youthful, aspirational and have a commitment to development. Both are members of the G-20, NAM, EAS and the like. Despite these similarities and the rather short distance between the Andamans and the Western State of Aceh in Indonesia, the distance in the mind is rather long. India and Indonesia have a common heritage, cultural and trade linkages going back to antiquity. Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, all came through these exchanges to Indonesia. The existence of Hindu and Buddhist temples in Yogayakarta and Borobudur and the influence there of the Ramayana and Mahabharata are astonishing to the modern visitor. India and Indonesia were allies in the fight against imperialism but in the 1970s, they started looking away from each other, till the return of multiparty democracy to Indonesia.

Since 2011, India and Indonesia are strategic partners, and an ambitious agenda of cooperation has been on the table but has not been implemented in a fulsome manner. The engagement needs to recognise the positive factors and the contradictions which impede it, to create a new paradigm which I call the “Masala Bumbu” effect (masala means spice in Hindi as bumbu does in Bahasa). In order to enhance the strategic partnership, five major aspects need consideration.

On the political front, there are signs of thaw in our engagement. Many stalled bilateral fora have successfully met in the last year. We must rationalise their calendar and implement decisions in a timely way. This will be more important after PM Modi’s visit. More consultation on regional and global issues — G-20, EAS and maritime security and sustainable development, for instance will give them greater cohesion in our regional and global outlook. We need to recognise that Indonesia has a view of China and the BRI which is at variance with ours. But it recognises India’s balancing role in maritime security, has cooperated on the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and is not supportive of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on its anti-Indian rhetoric. Our political need is to focus on commonalities, discuss issues frankly and establish political trust.

India-Indonesia maritime cooperation, exercises and patrolling between the Andamans and the Malacca straits have developed well. The engagement between the Indian navy and coast guard with the Indonesian navy has improved. We can now focus on supplying defence equipment to Indonesia and to look at joint production and development of such equipment. Indonesia requires a recognition of its capabilities and exploration of possible joint ventures would be appreciated. We could invest in a strategic port in Sumatra, which could support exports like coal and palm oil and support to Indian naval assets which require deep draught ports. A cooperative effort against terrorism and radicalisation needs to be high on the agenda.

On the trade and investment side, it is not advisable to curb trade for a balance since imports by India of coal and palm oil give Indonesia a surplus. This surplus will increase, as five lakh Indians now visit Indonesia. This can be compensated by Indonesian investment in India and allowing better access to Indian entrepreneurs to the growing Indonesian market for infrastructure, healthcare, mining and power. A special fast-track facility should be sought from Indonesia to support Indian business houses to secure and maintain business interest in Indonesia. Most Indian businesses feel that Indonesia is partial to China. Indonesia needs to be equitable in their engagements with India. If five flagship infrastructure projects like airport, port, hospital, power plant and mines are put on the fast track, it will create substantive economic impact. Similarly, Indonesia must present five investment proposals to join the Make in India programme. This could be in palm oil, food processing, roads and highways and the like. Indonesia, which has opened its market to Indian beef and found its positive economic impact needs to do the same for pharmaceuticals, rice, sugar and infrastructure machinery.

Around human resource development and education, much can be done by the two countries to fulfil each other’s aspirations. Most Indonesian students coming to India pursue religious studies, hardly any Indian students go to Indonesia. There is a need to develop a system of twinning universities to have common projects, faculty and student exchanges. The glorious days when Nalanda twinned with Muara Jambi need imaginative recreation.

Our common cultural heritage needs to be updated. Common archaeology projects can be undertaken. An Indonesia-India Ramayana festival held periodically should encourage development in the related dance forms over ASEAN countries and beyond. Moreover, the mainstream Muslim organisations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah need to be more closely engaged as they are the best bulwark against radicalisation. Greater space to such civil society cooperation efforts will give a long-term and popular base for the new thrust expected to the India Indonesia relationship through the PM’s forthcoming visit.

Singh is former ambassador to Indonesia and author of Masala Bumbu

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