A historic visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Jakarta on 30 May 2018 has successfully elevated India-Indonesia bilateral ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership. It has shown by the signing of fifteen agreements on a broad range of areas including defense, maritime, and economic development, which are advantageous to Indonesia’s interests in maritime affairs and economic diplomacy. Enhancing cooperation with Indonesia is essentially the conduct of Prime Minister Modi’s “Act East” policy that aims to advance its strategic role in the Indo-Pacific geopolitics, due to the rapidly changing security dynamic in the region. Thus, this article attempts to examine Modi’s Act East policy during his three-nation tour in the context of the Indo-Pacific, as well as to understand the significance of Indonesia for India’s foreign policy in deepening its strategic engagement with Southeast Asian states.
The Rationale of Modi’s ASEAN Visit
The PM Modi’s Southeast Asia tour should be seen as India strategic effort to boost “Act East” in the context of Indo-Pacific power game. There are two compelling factors driven a shift from Look East to Act East policy by Modi’s administration; which expanding India’s sphere of influence in Southeast Asia and the threat of rising assertive China in the region, especially the Indian Ocean.
Since the presence of Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) in the Indian Ocean intended securing the country’s energy supplies and trade routes across the sea lines of communication (SLOC), India’s concern over the China assertiveness has been intensified. Indian government suspiciously perceives this navy deployment as a “String of Pearls” strategy that legitimizes the Chinese military activities in the ocean. This strategy has been conceived as China’s attempt to grow its influence in the region through the establishment of networked naval hubs and port infrastructure along the SLOC from the eastern Indian Ocean to Strait of Malacca. Moreover, a strengthened bilateral partnership between China and South Asian countries like Pakistan and Sri Lanka has complemented India’s serious concern. This consequently required India to respond to China’s geopolitical maneuvers in the more advanced strategic way to maintain India’s pre-eminence in the region.
In this light, a greater strategic role in ASEAN and with its major powers is essential for Modi’s foreign policy objectives. ASEAN neutral image is rewarding to persuade involved hegemonic parties in conforming to any collaborative proposals of the grouping, which is crucial in counter-balancing assertive China. As a result, constructive engagement with ASEAN regionalism is determinant for India in enabling the country’s active participation in setting up security architecture of the Indo-Pacific.
Notwithstanding the role of ASEAN is crucial, the danger of internal divide and ineffectiveness brings about skepticism of Indian analysts to the grouping’s ability to restrain China with international norms and rules, specifically in the case of the South China Sea disputes. The best option exerting India’s containment strategy over China is the improvement of its bilateral strategic partnership with key regional players in ASEAN regionalism. The PM Modi’s official visit seen as a diplomatic instrument to promote India’s “benign power” image is remarkably beneficial to reinforce India’s engagement and extend influence in the context of the Indo-Pacific balancing game. However, this strategy would be ineffective without the endorsement of Indonesia due to its size, regional influence, and strategic location at the intersection between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
In this regard, upgrading strategic ties with Indonesia, a major regional power, can be seen as a hallmark of Modi’s further effort to consolidate its strategic interests and seeks greater engagement with ASEAN states, which share similar threat on and ambivalence toward Chinese strategic actions in their respective regions.
The Significance of Indonesia for India
There are three significance of Indonesia to Modi’s strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific that underlies the new comprehensive strategic partnership between India and Indonesia. First, Jokowi’s Global Maritime Fulcrum (GMF) converged with India’s interest in the region. The GMF emphasis on the importance of maritime safety, security, and connectivity shares similar concern with India’s one that aims to secure the maritime sector in the Indian Ocean, particularly the Strait of Malacca.
The recent speech of Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs, Luhut Pandjaitan, in Delhi has confirmed the importance of India’s role to stave off superpowers dominance that may intrude the stability in the Indo-Pacific region through advancement of two nations’ maritime partnership and India’s investment in seaport development and economic zone in the strategic island of Sabang. This opportunity will also substantiate existing bilateral defense cooperation, namely joint naval exercise and patrols, as well as the access to the strategic Island offers considerable support to Indian naval operation the Malacca Strait. Accordingly, Indonesia’s endorsement would enable India’s military to countervail the PLA Navy presence in the Indian Ocean, and hence India’s greater role in the balance of power of the Indo-Pacific.
Second, The Jakarta’s concept of Indo-Pacific cooperation has shared similarities with Modi’s “positive” vision emphasizing “an open, stable, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific Region.” Indonesia’s construct attributed mainly to the principles of “open, transparent and inclusive, promoting a habit of dialogue, promoting cooperation and friendship, and upholding international law,” as well as the rule-based regional order have rendered the positive response of Delhi. The constructive concept is consistent with Indonesia’s track records in promoting maritime cooperation and fundamental norms like the IORA’s.
Third, the leading role and influence of Indonesia in ASEAN is another underlying component advantageous to boost Modi’s diplomatic goal in the Indo-Pacific. The Jokowi’s vision emphasis on ASEAN centrality in the Indo-Pacific cooperation is mainly viewed as the attempt of the regional leader to define ASEAN position in a geopolitical construct of and role toward power competition in the Indo-Pacific region. The convergence of vision with Indonesia is significant for “Act East” policy to assert the importance of ASEAN central role in ensuring inclusive access to the Indo-Pacific region for the use of common spaces based on prevailing rules namely the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), including freedom of navigation and over-flight and commerce in the Indian Ocean. It is reflected in PM Modi’s speech during the Shangri-La Dialogue that the Indo-Pacific must be based on democratic principle and international rules that positions ASEAN in the core of regional architecture.
Toward A New Strategy to Contain China?
Despite a repudiation of China containment, Modi’s speech is implicitly conducting a strategy to contain China, since the Prime Minister subsequently reminded, “all of this is possible if we do not return to the age of great-power rivalries.” Modi’s rhetorical action attempted to exert a soft balancing strategy toward Beijing through the emphasis on rule-of-law, normative regional order, power-rivalry rejection, and ASEAN centrality in the Indo-Pacific, components that China is mostly incompliant with. These institutional and rhetorical strategies are likely to sustain India’s existing balancing efforts further through building alignment with preponderant major powers and upgrading its tangible power.
This new Modi’s strategies would enhance India’s image as benign powers to ASEAN and thus reinforce the country’s position in the Indo-Pacific geopolitics. As a consequence, India’s strategic role and engagement would be intensively required in many Southeast Asian foreign affairs. Nevertheless, the challenges of China’s de facto domination in the South China Sea and discrepancy over the Indo-Pacific concern among ASEAN states are required to deal with, and this issue depends on the role of Indonesia. (Defbry Margiansyah)