A key milestone in ‘Act East’ policy

This handout photograph taken and released by India's Press Information Bureau (PIB) on May 30, 2018 shows Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) and Indonesian President Joko Widodo (C) laugh as they fly kites at the India-Indonesia Kite Exhibition in J

Maritime and naval co-operation between India and Indonesia is poised to grow significantly in the coming years. During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Jakarta, the two governments agreed to develop infrastructure and an economic zone at Sabang. Sabang is strategically located. It is 710 km southeast of the Andaman Islands at the tip of Sumatra Island and less than 500 km from the mouth of the strategic Malacca Strait. With India developing Sabang port, it will be able to accommodate commercial vessels as well as submarines. This is an important milestone in India’s ‘Act East’ policy. Additionally, it will enhance India’s strategic interests in Southeast Asia, where China is locked in bitter territorial and maritime disputes with several nations, some of whom are India’s close allies. India has strong economic interests in the region, too. Some 40% of its trade traverses the Straits of Malacca. Importantly, it is through this waterway that much of China’s oil imports from Africa and West Asia are carried aboard tankers. India’s development of Sabang port is no doubt being undertaken with an eye on China. Indonesia, on its part, is doing a careful balancing act between Delhi and Beijing. While it is jointly developing Sabang with India, it is a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), too, and will see projects worth $23.3 billion being implemented as part of BRI.

During Modi’s visit, the two sides upgraded their ties to a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’. Delhi and Jakarta will strengthen bilateral connectivity, particularly sea links, to facilitate people-to-people contact. They are eyeing better connectivity between the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Indonesia’s Aceh as well with a view to developing these island-chains. The two countries plan to strengthen bilateral trade from $18.13 billion in 2017 to $50 billion by 2025. This should not be difficult if the two sides keep the current momentum going. Between 2016 and 2017, trade grew by almost 29%.

India often forgets that Indonesia is a neighbour; just 100 miles of sea separate the two countries. Indonesia thus deserves our full attention. The two countries have strong historical ties and share cultural and political commonalities. Both are plural societies and democracies. They face several similar challenges. Along with Egypt, India and Indonesia founded the Non-Aligned Movement, but Delhi and Jakarta drifted apart during the Cold War. While ties have improved in recent decades, especially since the end of dictatorship in Indonesia, relations are nowhere near their full potential. India must draw on its substantial soft power resources to build bridges with Indonesia. Modi’s visit should provide momentum to this new comprehensive strategic partnership. 

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A key milestone in ‘Act East’ policy


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