How India Is Quietly Playing The Indonesia Card To Counter China

The India-Indonesia interplay is the strategic story to watch out for in the near future. 

5 min read
Hindi Female

International diplomacy is an intricate web and nothing short of a cloak-and-daggers mystery. Well, you get a glimpse of this dark game in India's dealings with China if you were to have a close look at the rapidly increasing India-Indonesia bonhomie.

While the Narendra Modi government is sending positive feelers to China by sidelining the Dalai Lama, it is quietly taking its relations with Indonesia to a never-before level, with an eye on China. Among all ten ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) members, no other country is going ahead in stepping up a truly strategic cooperation with India, the way Indonesia is.


It may well be a non-story for the TRP-driven Indian media, but the India-Indonesia interplay is the strategic story to watch out for in the near future. The underlying rationale of India behind ratcheting up strategic ties with Indonesia is two-fold:

  1. Indonesia is not only the biggest country in the ASEAN grouping (which is the focus of New Delhi's Act East Policy) but also a fast emerging major economy, a G20 member and a country with which India has traditionally had very close and cordial relations for last seven decades;
  2. Apart from Vietnam, Indonesia too, has boundary dispute with China and is the only Muslim-majority country which is capable of contributing significantly for reining in the Chinese influence in the region. Therefore, the increasing India-Indonesia bonhomie must be seen from the larger and a long-term strategic perspective: the China factor.

The First Baby Step

A concrete evidence of how the two sides are pressing ahead with concrete works in carrying forward their strategic partnership is the first-ever India Indonesia Infrastructure Forum (IIIF) that was held in Jakarta on 19 March 2018. At this event, first concrete steps were taken to implement the Vision Document to elevate the two countries' relations to a New Comprehensive Strategic Partnership from a mere “strategic partnership” between them since 2005.

The event was the first baby step since the summit meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Indonesian President Joko Widodo travelled to India on a state visit in December 2017, the first presidential visit from Indonesia to India in nearly six years since the visit of then President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in January 2011.

During this visit, the two sides thrashed out a Vision Document by an Eminent Persons Group, comprising experts from both countries, tasked to identify areas for deeper two-way engagement.

At this event, a high-level delegation of 30 Indian CEO’s from infrastructure sectors focusing on Port, Power, Airport, Water Resource Management, Hospital Managements Systems and Health Service, Industry 4.0 and IT solutions for Infrastructure Projects, with leading Indian companies like GMR, GVK, Adani, Larsen & Toubro, Tata Power, TCS, Tech Mahindra, Adani, Max Hospitals, Narayana Health, WAPCOS, EXIM Bank, Jet Airways, IOCL among others were present.


Industry counterparts from Indonesia of more than 80 companies in infrastructure sector, including Pertamina (Oil & Gas), Garuda (Air connectivity), Angkasa Pura (Airports), Pelindo (Seaports), Jasa Marga (Highway Management), along with officials of BKPM, Ministry of State Owned Enterprises and Ministry of Health also participated at the first IIIF.

This first IIIF included sectoral presentations by Indian companies on their capacities to execute projects in the port, power, airport Infrastructure, water resource management, hospital and Healthcare, Industry 4.0 and IT solutions for Infrastructure Projects etc.

Presentations were also made by the representative of Coordinating Ministry for Maritime Affairs, BKPM, Minister of State Owned Companies and Ministry of Health on the investment incentives being offered to foreign companies.

The event also included B2B meetings between representatives of Indian and Indonesian companies. Significant business leads emerged during the B2B sessions which would be followed by both sides subsequently.


The Big Turnaround

Indonesia is India’s largest trading partner in the ASEAN region, and this was the first event exclusively focusing on increasing Indian stakeholder participation in Indonesian infrastructure that was organised in Indonesia. It is henceforth expected to be an annual event, in collaboration with agencies of the Indonesian Government.

The big turnaround in India-Indonesia bilateral relations came in December 2017, when Indonesian President Joko Widodo travelled to India on a state visit. During this visit, India and Indonesia decided to elevate their relations to a New Comprehensive Strategic Partnership from a mere “strategic partnership” between them since 2005.

The bid to elevate this relationship is significant, following India elevating its relationship with another Southeast Asian nation, Vietnam, "Strategic Partnership" to "Comprehensive Strategic Partnership", during Modi's visit there in September 2017.

By 2025, this elevated Partnership is expected to evolve with significant breadth and depth, particularly in the five major areas of cooperation set forth in 2013: Strategic engagement, defence and security cooperation, comprehensive economic partnership, cultural and people-to-people links, and cooperation in responding to common challenges, as per the India-Indonesia Vision Document, by an Eminent Persons Group, comprising experts from both countries, tasked to identify areas for deeper two-way engagement.


The two countries have pledged to deepen their defence and security cooperation, particularly in maritime sphere as Indonesia too, has been affected by China's maritime incursions into its waters off Natuna Islands.

The two sides have also agreed to take the volume of their annual bilateral trade to a whopping USD 50 billion by 2025 from the present USD 9 billion, and a two-way investment of $50 billion, as per a vision document prepared

The India-Indonesia Vision Document stresses on the following points:

  • The India-Indonesia partnership will contribute to strategic stability in the Indian Ocean, with India and Indonesia being the largest Indian Ocean rim countries and called for closer security and defense relations, including counter-terrorism collaboration.
  • India and Indonesia will develop convergent maritime interests and will intensify their maritime linkages by developing the necessary infrastructure and connectivity.
  • India and Indonesia shall have ever closer security and defense relations, marked by close military-to-military relations, counter-terrorism collaboration, naval cooperation, including combined maritime patrols, regular exchanges and joint exercises, intelligence sharing, and joint production of defense equipment and systems.

Together, India and Indonesia comprise one-fifth of humanity, with a combined GDP of more than USD 3 trillion, and form two of Asia's largest nations and the world's fast growing emerging economies. Their convergences are many, and have been there for over half a century.

India and Indonesia were among the first nations to declare independence after World War II, initiated the Afro-Asian and Non-Aligned Movements, and actively promoted multi-lateralism, decolonisation, disarmament and North-South dialogue as well as South-South cooperation.

(Rajeev Sharma is an independent journalist and strategic affairs analyst who tweets @Kishkindha. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:  Indonesia   Vietnam   Bilateral Relations 

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