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Jakarta Post

India, Indonesia: Seizing the maritime moment

  • C Raja Mohan and Ankush Ajay Wagle


Singapore   /   Wed, May 30, 2018   /   03:13 pm
India, Indonesia: Seizing the maritime moment A harbor overlooking the Indian Ocean on Manado city. (Shutterstock/File)

The similarities between Indian Prime Minister Modi, who is visiting Indonesia this week, and his host President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo are well known. Both have risen from humble origins. Modi sold tea at a railway station and Jokowi exported furniture. Both were rank outsiders to the establishment but fought their way to the top of the political heap. 

But there is probably a more important but less noticed similarity between the two leaders: an unusual commitment to their nations’ maritime future. Although India has a huge coastline and Indonesia is a massive archipelago, their modern rulers barely looked to the sea. Jokowi and Modi seem determined to change it. 

In late 2015, Jokowi unveiled the ambition to turn Indonesia into the “maritime fulcrum” between the Pacific and the Indian Oceans. A few months earlier, Modi travelled to the Indian Ocean islands states — Mauritius and Seychelles — to outline independent India’s first ever policy for the Indian Ocean. It was called SAGAR — security and growth for all. In Sanskrit, “Sagar” also means the ocean. 

To be sure, India’s turn to the seas inevitably followed its economic reform and opening up in the early 1990s. But it was Modi who sought to lend greater energy to India’s ocean policy. 

Modi has sought to strengthen domestic maritime infrastructure through the idea of “port-led development”. 

Externally, Modi has also encouraged a more aggressive bid for port development in other countries. The first visible success of this policy has been India’s participation in the development of the Chabahar port in Iran. 

Modi has also sought an end to the India of as a lone-ranger in the Indian Ocean, made it more amenable to maritime multilateralism through such regional institutions as Indian Ocean Rim Association and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium. He also shed India’s ambivalence about security cooperation with major powers like the United States. Modi has also been eager to promote maritime cooperation with key regional actors like France, Japan, Australia and Indonesia. 

Although Modi and Jokowi have a hard time getting their bureaucracies to think maritime, there is no doubt that they have begun to end the sea-blindness in both countries. 

This has also opened the door for India and Indonesia to end their prolonged neglect of the possibilities for maritime cooperation in the ocean spaces that they share. That both Modi and Jokowi have embraced the new geopolitical construct called the Indo-Pacific suggests that the stars for a productive maritime partnership between India and Indonesia are finally in alignment. 

The notion that Delhi and Jakarta have a “duty to advance maritime cooperation” was articulated by Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs, Luhut Pandjaitan, during his visit to Delhi earlier this month. 

He also affirmed that greater security and economic partnership between the two nations was critical for the balance of power in Asia and the Indian Ocean. It is a view that is fully shared by Modi’s foreign policy advisers. 

That the Indian Ocean frontier between India and Indonesia demands maritime cooperation was recognized quite early on by the post-colonial leaders in Delhi and Jakarta — Jawaharlal Nehru and Sukarno. It has now fallen on Modi and Jokowi to translate that vision into reality. 

Way back in 1951, Delhi and Jakarta signed a peace and friendship treaty. In 1958, the two navies signed an agreement for cooperation that included provisions for training, attachment of naval officers and naval exercises. 

In 1974 the two sides signed a maritime boundary agreement demarcating the Greater Nicobar and Sumatra islands. But the political alienation in the following decades limited all bilateral cooperation, let alone maritime engagement. India’s Look East Policy of the early 1990s and its progressive inclusion in the ASEAN structures opened the door for all round engagement between India and South East Asia, including the renewal of maritime contacts. 

Indonesia’s navy participated in the Indian navy’s inaugural MILAN exercise of the 1995 and has since participated in several editions of the biennial multilateral exercises in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. India and Indonesia have conducted coordinated naval patrols (CORPAT) in the Andaman Sea since 2002. 

The Act East Policy articulated by Modi and the growing strategic turbulence in the waters of Southeast Asia saw a fresh emphasis on maritime cooperation between India and the ASEAN. 

The joint declaration issued at the end of summit between India and Southeast Asian leaders held in Delhi during January 2018 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of India’s association with the ASEAN, underlined the shared goals in the ocean spaces and the urgent need to intensify cooperation in the maritime domain — including in the areas of security, transport, commerce, education, research, development and 

The realization of the full potential of maritime cooperation between India and the ASEAN would necessarily depend on the depth of bilateral engagement between Delhi and Jakarta. 

As Modi and Jokowi sought to develop ocean-based strategies for their nations, the idea of maritime cooperation has inevitably taken the center stage.

During Jokowi’s state visit to New Delhi in December 2016, the two sides released a statement of intent on maritime cooperation. 

It “affirmed that India and Indonesia are maritime neighbors whose relations are rooted in civilizational contacts developed through the seas and who share similar perceptions of the evolving maritime environment in the region and the world at large.” 

Delhi and Jakarta also agreed to concrete steps to accelerate economic and security cooperation in the maritime domain. Modi’s return visit this week will hopefully clinch some specific steps. 

There have been media reports that the two sides could agree on the joint construction of ports, facilitate direct shipping links, promote cruise tourism in the Bay of Bengal, and strengthen shared maritime domain awareness in common sea spaces. These are valuable first steps. But the renewed awareness that they are close neighbors, the new imperatives for the sustainable use of the oceans, and the responsibility to contribute more to the maintenance of the regional security order in the Indo-Pacific demand that Modi and Jokowi think boldly on their shared maritime future.


C. Raja Mohan is director and visiting research professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), National University of Singapore. Ankush Ajay Wagle is a research assistant at ISAS. The views expressed are their own.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.