Natural partners

The choice of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyona as chief guest of India’s  Republic Day celebrations this year was not without reason. Indonesia’s first president Sukarno was the chief guest at the first Republic Day celebrations in 1950. The invitation was not, however, just about symbolism. There are substantial reasons for India reaching out to Indonesia. India was signaling the importance it accords Indonesia in its global strategy.

Indonesia and India are natural partners. They share a civilisational heritage and are multi-ethnic, multi-religious societies. Both emerged from years of colonial rule to become democracies with non-aligned foreign policies. Although Indonesia came under authoritarian rule for a couple of decades, since 1999 it has returned to a democratic system. Its democracy is no less vibrant than that of India. The two countries are geographically close too.

During Yudhoyono’s previous visit to India in 2005, the two countries initiated a strategic partnership, with a focus on bilateral trade and cultural exchanges. They set a trade target worth $10 billion by 2010. The two countries exceeded this target and finalised a free trade agreement (FTA) in goods, making Indonesia the sixth ASEAN country with which India has an FTA. During Yudhoyono’a visit, business deals worth $15 billion were signed. The countries have pledged to increase trade to $25 billion by 2015.

Relations are robust. However, there is immense potential that remains untapped, especially in the area of maritime security co-operation. Keeping the Malacca Straits safe from pirates and terrorists has been a shared concern of the two countries. India is part of a multinational anti-piracy patrolling effort in the Malacca Straits which has contributed to bringing down dramatically incidents of piracy near this vital waterway. India must tread carefully in projecting a role for itself in the Malacca Straits. It must ensure that its role remains non-intrusive, co-operative and benign.

Both India and Indonesia are keen to ensure that the evolving security architecture in the Asia Pacific is open and inclusive. As India takes its ‘look east policy’ to the next level, beyond Southeast Asia and East Asia to the Asia-Pacific, it will look to Indonesia as a crucial partner. For decades, outside powers have kept Asia divided through a system of alliances, pitting one country against another. India and Indonesia can become the core of an Asian effort to change that architecture.

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