Counter-working China?


By Dr D.K Giri
(Prof. of International Politics, JMI)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi undertook a visit to three important Members States of ASEAN last week. It was his maiden visit to Indonesia, second to Malaysia and third to Singapore in his premiership. The trip, especially, to Indonesia was designed to circumvent China in Indo-Pacific region. Was it? If so, what diplomatic dividends did we achieve?
Modi started off by invoking the millennia-old civilisational, societal and cultural ties that bind India and Indonesia together. He said: “not only do the names of our two countries rhyme, but also there is a distinct rhythm in India-Indonesia friendship …We have similar culture, cuisine and folklore”.
Not many would be aware that Indonesia’s first President Sukarno called India’s first Prime Minister Nehru, his ‘political father’. Both the countries were fighting for independence from colonial rule around the same time. India was seen by Indonesia as a great friend. One incident forgotten by media during PM Modi’s trip is the heroic work done by Odiya leader late Biju Patnaik during Indonesia’s fight against Dutch colonialism.
In 1947, the Dutch attempted to quell Indonesia’s struggle for independence and took control over air and sea routes. Sukarno wanted his Prime Minister Sutan Sjahrir to attend the Inter-Asia conference organised by Nehru. Since all routes were under Dutch control, Sukarno sought Nehru’s help who turned to buccaneering fighter pilot Biju Patnaik to rescue Sjahrir. Patnaik landed in Java in his swashbuckling style evading the firing by the Dutch, airlifted Sjahrir as well as Sukarno in a Dakota, a military transport air-carrier, and brought him to India via Singapore.
Patnaik was honoured with the highest civilian award given to a foreigner, Bhoomiputra, (son of the soil) as Indonesia achieved independence, and on its 50th anniversary, in 1996, he was conferred with the highest national award ‘Bintang Jasa Utama’. It is believed that Patnaik named Sukarno’s daughter Megawati (Goddess of clouds) Sukarnoputri.
Culturally, the Odiyas celebrate till date ‘Bali Yatra’ (Bali festival), a traditional ceremony to commemorate the voyages of Indian sailors to the Indonesian island. Even as the largest Muslim majority country, Indonesia uses plenty of Indian epics like Mahabharata as symbols of their culture. Their national aircraft is named Garuda, they have Arjuna’s vijay (victory) chariot kept as a museum piece. The Hindus, two per cent of Indonesia’s population constitute 94 per cent in Bali. Geographically, two largest democracies in Asia are less than 100 miles apart between the Southern-most tip of India and Northern-most tip of Indonesia.
Arguably, with so much cultural affinity, historical friendship and socio-economic similarities, the two countries should be close to each other. But regional and global politics have not made it happen so far. Indonesia has been out of India’s strategic calculus. Attempts are being made to reverse the trend. President Joko Widodo’s Maritime Fulcrum Policy (MFP) matches with India’s Act East Policy and SAGAR (Security and Growth for all in the Region) enunciated by Modi two years ago in Mauritius. Jakarta doesn’t wish to remain low-key in maritime strategic architecture of the Indo-Pacific region and wants to retain independent control over its strategic interest in the face of expanding Chinese influence through OBOR.
Both countries signed as many as 15 Agreements to enhance political and economic cooperation, mainly strategic and defence ties between two maritime neighbours. These covered defence, exploration and use of outer space, health, railways and capacity building of public officials. It was decided to expand air routes; Garuda will fly from Bali to Bombay direct from April 2018; Batik Air and Air Asia will connect to different cities of India; Modi offered 30-day free visa for Indonesian tourists and invited Indian-Indonesians to visit Kumbh Mela next year. It was agreed to increase investment up to $50 billion by 2025, having expressed satisfaction over 22.34% increases from $12.9 billion in 2016 to $18.13 billion in 2017.
Both Prime Ministers condemned terrorism and vowed to fight it jointly. Modi addressed the CEO’s in Indonesian Chamber of Commerce which signed an agreement with Confederation of Indian Industries (CII), which will soon open its office in Jakarta. It was agreed to build links between Andaman Nicobar Islands and Aceh in Indonesia to tap the economic potential.
However, of most significance to India was the access of Sabang port promised by Indonesia. Sabang is a crucial strategic location, in northern tip of Sumatra, at the mouth of Malacca straits. Indonesian Minister of Maritime Affairs had promised this on his visit to India days before Modi flew to Indonesia. India is poised to develop Sabang port with the distance between it and Nicobar Islands being 350 miles. Sabang will enhance India’s maritime presence in the region as it becomes a part of Malacca strait patrol comprising India, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand.
All in all, New Delhi and Jakarta should come closer than ever as both are mindful of China’s overarching presence in the region, and Beijing being a cartographic aggressor. Besides, Indonesia and China are adversarial in Natuna Islands. Modi complimented the democracy and diversity characterising both the countries. He also visited the grand Istiqlal Mosque, the second biggest Sunni Mosque in the world, accommodating 120,000 worshippers, despite incurring criticism of international appeasement of Muslims during Ramzan. To complete the multi-culturality of Indonesia, he also visited Buddhist and Hindu shrines
Modi’s next step was Malaysia, his second, to congratulate new Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, sworn in on 10 May after a stunning victory of the Alliance over Barisan Nasional Coalition which had ruled Malaysia since 1957. Malaysia, he said, is a strategic partner and a priority country in India’s Act East Policy. For Malaysia, India is the largest trading partner with $15.44 billion in 2017. The goodwill visit also aimed at boosting economic and cultural relations.
Modi was in Singapore for two days primarily to deliver the Shangri-La lecture at the annual security summit organised by London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies, supported by Singapore government. This was the first time an Indian Prime Minister was attending the conference. The lecture elucidated Modi government’s world view especially the Act East. He spoke at length about India-China relations and said the whole world is looking at the rising East as it holds the promise for the 21st century. He met the visiting US Defence Secretary on the sidelines.
India and Singapore signed eight Agreements covering fintech, skill development, urban planning, artificial intelligence, smart cities, and infrastructure development. Modi had extensive talks with his counterpart Lee Hsien Loong and affirmed that Singapore was the springboard for India for ASEAN. He complimented 25 years of India-Singapore bilateral maritime exercise.
Apparently as Modi’s Singapore visit was a mix of work and leisure, he visited India’s heritage centre, the Chulia Mosque, Mariamman temple, Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, Changi Naval base and the Botanical Garden, part of which, got named after him. It all sounds good. But, let us end with a telling humorous comment made by the legendary Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to a business delegation to India, “Folks! Remember to buy two return tickets as Indians do not know how to conclude the business talks.” Has the perception changed with Modi at the helm? It is doubtable.—INFA