'Act East' and 'Maritime Axis' - A Strategic Convergence between India and Indonesia


"To deepen our connectivity, I am considering establishing, with your cooperation, a special facility or special purpose vehicle to facilitate project financing and quick implementation. However, in this age, more than physical connectivity, we need Information Highways or i-ways. My experience is that even where road connectivity is poor, we can create vast economic opportunities and employment through i-ways. India is prepared to provide all assistance and cooperation in this area." (Modi, 2014)

I GustiBagus Dharma Agastia 1
AnakAgung Banyu Perwita 2
Prof. AA Banyu Perwita, PhD.
President University, Kota Jababeka, Cikarang, Bekasi-Indonesia

The relationship between India and Indonesia has a long history. In ancient times, Indian merchants sailed to Indonesia to conduct trade and spread Hinduism. During the 1940s, Indonesia and India both emerged as two states that gained independence from colonial powers. In 1961, Indonesia's first President Soekarno and India's first Prime Minister Nehru founded the Asia-Africa Conference. Indonesia and India emerged as post-colonial leaders, as beacons for post-colonial states in Asia and Africa. Though the two countries shared similar political visions, they had their differences in their regional ambitions that led to decades of rivalry. In the 1960s, Indonesia supported Pakistan in its conflict with India; whereas India supported Malaysia in its conflict with Indonesia. Soekarno even went as far as attacking the Indian Embassy in Jakarta with the help of mobs as a sign of disagreement towards India, whom Soekarno saw as a neo-colonial lackey (Brewster, 2011). Broiled in rivalry for the next two decades, relations between the two countries deteriorated. It was not until 1991, when India decided to adopt its 'Look East' policy that Indonesia-India relations began to reconstruct. Through the Look East policy, India sought to expand its multilateral network eastward towards Southeast and East Asia in an attempt to balance against China's economic and political emergence. Since then, India became actively engaged in Southeast Asia and pursued deeper relations with Indonesia as a strategic partner in the region.

In 2001, India and Indonesia decided on several agreements to further affirm their commitment. Faced with an arms embargo from the US, Indonesia was in need of a partner to provide defence equipment. Indonesia sought the help of India. In the 2001 defence agreement signed by the then Indonesian Defence Minister Mahfud MD and the then Indian Minister of State for External Affairs Ajit Kumar Panja, the two countries agreed on a strategic partnership in arms sales and defence activities. A number of economic MoUs were signed as well, particularly in offshore oil drilling (Jakarta Post, 2001). Based on the 2001 agreement that was renewed in 2005, India continues to be Indonesia's partner in strategic areas, such as military aid and technical assistance; while Indonesia remains as India's second largest trading partner in ASEAN.

On a domestic level, both countries are simultaneously experiencing new leaderships. Narendra Modi and Joko Widodo seem to share similar strategic interests. Modi is advancing with his 'Act East' policy, a reinvigorated and action-oriented upgrade to the former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao's 'Look East' policy in 1991, while Joko Widodo is advancing his own 'Maritime Axis' doctrine of foreign policy and security. With Narendra Modi and Joko Widodo at the helm of the two countries, Indonesia-India relations are expected to strengthen as the two heads of states carry out platforms that converge the economic and strategic interests of India and Indonesia.

India-Indonesia's Strategic Convergence

Joko Widodo's maritime axis incorporates a 'Look West' policy. Earlier, Indonesia's main focus in foreign policy was the Pacific Ocean and ASEAN. Indonesia spent a fair amount of time developing the region through ASEAN, creating a regional organisation with a dispute settlement mechanism for resolving disputes in the region and connecting Asia-Pacific through a network of multilateral forums in a number of areas, including security and economy. However, unlike his predecessors, Joko Widodo has decided that the Indian Ocean was now of importance, exhibiting Joko Widodo's ambitions of Indonesia being an Indo-Pacific maritime power. PM Modi announced his 'Act East' policy at the 2014 India-ASEAN Summit held at Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar. Modi's new foreign policy emphasises an action-oriented platform in Southeast and East Asia. Modi's 'Act East' reaffirms India's position as a strategic partner of ASEAN and promises further action by the Indian government in cooperating with ASEAN and its member states, especially in maritime security. Given India's emerging economic and military clout, India is also expected to become a balancing power against China's increasing assertiveness in Southeast and East Asia. Both foreign policies are expected to converge on the Indian Ocean, while not forgetting the Pacific, as a new region for bilateral and multilateral cooperation and partnership.

In recent years, the Indian Ocean came from being the neglected areas of geopolitics to becoming an emerging area of security and economic interest. The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is teeming with resources and has a large market. Two-thirds of the world's oil reserves and one-third of the world's natural gas reserves are located in the IOR. Moreover, with the existence of diamonds, uranium, and gold reserves and the one-third of the world's population in the region, the IOR has become the 'single largest area of exploitable wealth in the world' (Gupta, 2010). Apart from natural resources and a potential market, the region's waterways also hold strategic and economic value. The IOR Ocean sees more than half of energy trade from the Gulf to the advanced economies in Asia, such as China, Japan, and South Korea, making it the 'world's most important energy route' (Michel & Sticklor, 2012).

Indonesia has security concerns in the region. The first concern is maritime piracy, especially in the Strait of Malacca. As a vital naval chokepoint, the Malacca is prone to pirates due to the large volume of cargo shipped through the Strait. In 2014, 129 pirate attacks happened in the Strait and surrounding waters (Jakarta Post, 2015). A sudden disruption in the energy trade would spell disaster for not only Indonesia, but also the economies in East Asia. Indonesia's second concern is great power politics in the IOR. Increased attention from the world's great powers has made the IOR an increasingly hot region. The IOR is important for the US in its Middle East foreign policy, especially in the Gulf. The US also benefits from the energy trade conducted in the region and maintains its foothold at Diego Garcia. As a rising power, China is seeking to expand its influence through its 'String of Pearls', a network of port facilities stationed in strategic parts of littoral states in the IOR to secure the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) between China and the Middle East. It also serves China's strategic interests to balance US naval presence in the region (Pehrson, 2006). Considering Indonesia's close proximity to the region, exacerbated tensions between US and China would be detrimental to Indonesia's economic and security interests.

India's security concerns in the region have also increased. The Indian Ocean has always been India's backyard. Pannikar (1945) describes the IOR as a 'vital sea' for India, as India's 'freedom is dependent on the freedom of that coastal surface'. First and foremost, India is keen on maintaining its position as the only regional power in the region. Having another great power in the IOR would be detrimental for India's long-term strategic interests, as the possibility of a security dilemma in the IOR would certainly jeopardise India's position. As a country with considerable defence capabilities due to its liberal defence expenditure, India is gearing towards an enhanced naval role in the IOR to protect its geopolitical interests. Defence equipment procurement has been focussed on blue-water navy capabilities, such as long-range aircraft, nuclear submarines, and aircraft carriers (Pant, 2009). India's second security concern is in the area of non-traditional security. Maritime piracy remains an issue for India. Pirates operating in the Malacca Strait and off the Horn of Africa can potentially disrupt trade and commerce in the SLOCs, jeopardising India's seaborne trade. Terrorist groups, such as the Jamaah Islamiyah and the al-Qaeda, can use waterways in the IOR to smuggle drugs and arms (Pant, 2009).

In light of the uncertainties and security challenges in the region, India and Indonesia have begun to enhance their existing bilateral defence ties. In 2013, India and Indonesia once again expanded their standing defence agreement. The agreement expanded the areas of cooperation to include outer space, nuclear energy, food security, counterterrorism, defence, maritime security, and trans-border threats. Annual summits were also to be held among delegates of the two countries to facilitate discussion for future plans (The Hindu, 2013). This shows India's strong intentions to have Indonesia as a strategic partner, considering that annual summits were previously only granted to Russia and Japan. Real cooperation between the two countries can be seen in the Ind-Indo Copat, a coordinated patrol between India and Indonesia. The annual joint naval patrol is expected to 'help develop interoperability and strengthen Navy-to-Navy ties' and also address non-traditional security issues in the region (The Hindu, 2014). Joint naval exercises are expected to continue, as both countries share common security interests in the region. Moreover in maritime security, as Indonesia strives to modernise its navy, India's defence industries will be counted on to provide the necessary defence equipment and technological assistance to boost Indonesia's naval capabilities.

Interests are also beginning to converge on a multilateral basis. In 2011, during India's term as chair of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), six priorities were added to the IORA agenda: maritime safety and security, trade and investment facilitation, fisheries management and sustainable harvesting of marine food resources, disaster risk reduction, academic and S&T cooperation, and tourism promotion and cultural exchanges. These six priorities coincide nicely with Indonesia's interests in the IOR. Further, Indonesia's role as chair of the IORA in 2015-2017 provides a strong basis for playing a bigger part in the multilateral organisation.

While, Retno Marsudi, Indonesia's Foreign Minister, insists that Indonesia will actively contribute to IORA, focusing on what Indonesia can provide to the organisation as opposed to what IORA could provide for Indonesia (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2015). Given Indonesia's strong ties with India, it is likely that Indonesia would involve India as its partner in developing IORA and advancing Indonesia's interests in the Indian Ocean. India has also reaffirmed its commitment to being ASEAN's strategic partner in the 17th ASEAN-India Senior Officials Meeting in New Delhi in March 2015. Connectivity between ASEAN member states and India would likely become the main narrative driving India-ASEAN relations in the future. Modi emphasises the construction of 'i-ways' or 'Information Highways' that will connect India with ASEAN, bringing forth more economic opportunities among the two. In the words of PM Modi,

“To deepen our connectivity, I am considering establishing, with your cooperation, a special facility or special purpose vehicle to facilitate project financing and quick implementation. However, in this age, more than physical connectivity, we need Information Highways or i-ways. My experience is that even where road connectivity is poor, we can create vast economic opportunities and employment through i-ways. India is prepared to provide all assistance and cooperation in this area.” (Modi, 2014)

Future Challenges to India-Indonesia Relations

Despite the opportunities in developing India-Indonesia ties, there are also several challenges that need to be addressed by both Narendra Modi and Joko Widodo.

While India has been Indonesia's strategic partner since 2001, development in defence cooperation has been slow. In the defence industry, the main hurdles are Indonesia's small defence budget and India's own limitations, such as export restrictions and political bottlenecks (Brewster, 2011). Indonesia has yet to acquire India's Brahmos missile technology and the training it needs for the Su-30 aircraft. However, things might change as Joko Widodo aims to crank up Indonesia's defence budget to 1.5 percent of GDP in the next five years. Still related to defence, the two countries need to synchronise their security outlooks for defence ties to be effective (Supriyanto, 2013). Since the Indian Ocean has been neglected in Indonesia for the last two decades, Indonesia still has to grasp the situation in the IOR. India and Indonesia need to be able to identify their security priorities in the region and design specific initiatives towards those priorities.

The Indonesian Navy still maintains a low profile in the IOR due to its limited capabilities. The Indian Navy, despite being better equipped, still maintain a limited presence in the Malacca Strait due to a conflict of interests between Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. If the two were to seamlessly cooperate on combating maritime piracy, they would need to start initiatives to promote mutual trust. Joint naval exercises and bilateral defence summits, such as the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), can help the two countries in agreeing upon their respective security interests.

India and Indonesia are also faced with the challenge of building a solid regional architecture in the Indian Ocean. As there is no one great power to act as a 'leader' in the Indian Ocean, the task falls into the hands of Indonesia, as the chair of the IORA, and India, as the region's military powerhouse. Indonesia seeks equilibrium between the powers in the IOR, while India is wary of China's 'String of Pearls'. These two interests can be met if Indonesia and India cooperate together through IORA to build a security architecture that resembles ASEAN in the IOR. Currently, IORA is more interested in economic matters as opposed to security. Indonesia could capitalise on its leadership in IORA to formulate a treaty resembling ASEAN's Treaty of Amity and Cooperation as a foundation towards the construction of IORA as a solid regional security architecture.


With the emergence of China in the IOR and India's economic growth, India has sought to 'Acting East' rather than just 'Looking East'. Likewise, Joko Widodo has ambitions for Indonesia to become a pan-Pacific maritime power with his 'maritime axis' doctrine. This has led to a convergence of strategic interests between the two countries, both bilateral and multilateral. In bilateral relations, security interests have converged. Indonesia aims to become a maritime power in the Indo-Pacific, while India has the capacity to fulfil Indonesia's defence equipment needs. On the other hand, India seeks to be more active in Southeast Asia and needs a partner to help carry out its ambitions. Both are also interested in securing the SLOCs in the IOR to protect their economic lifelines. These shared interests are expected to foster a fruitful strategic partnership. In multilateral relations, the two countries are now expected to play larger roles in regional organisations. Indonesia is going to chair the IORA and India is determined to contribute more actively in ASEAN. As the primus inter pares in ASEAN, Indonesia will be looked upon to provide India with the support it needs to contribute in ASEAN. Likewise, India will be looked upon to support Indonesia's term as leader of the IORA in building a solid regional organisation.

Despite the prospects of a constructive partnership, there are also challenges that need to be considered. Both countries need to synchronise their security outlooks to plan the best arrangements within the scope of their respective national interests. Also, defence cooperation remains limited between the two, possibly hindering better relations.

As both heads of states carry out their regional ambitions, in the future, it is possible that more areas of convergence between India and Indonesia will open up, allowing both countries to enjoy the full benefits of their strategic partnership.

1 Research Assistant at School of International Relations, President University, Indonesia.
2 Professor of International Relations, School of International Relations, President University, Indonesia

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GustiBagus Dharma Agastia: Research Assistant at School of International Relations, President University, Indonesia.
AnakAgung Banyu Perwita: Professor of International Relations, School of International Relations, President University, Indonesia

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