Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Why India should make Indonesia a priority

Why India should make Indonesia a priority
Published 22 May 2014   Follow @drajendram

The BJP has swept to power in India, winning enough seats in India's lower house of parliament to form government on its own if it wished. Although foreign policy won't be a pressing priority for the new government, such a decisive mandate will empower the BJP to pursue a foreign policy agenda untempered by the interests of coalition partners. India's relationship with Indonesia is one which Prime Minister-elect Modi should focus on deepening early in his tenure.

As I've written previously, this election campaign focused on domestic issues of economic growth, governance and corruption, and much is still unknown about Modi's foreign policy plans.

However, the BJP has signaled its intention to pursue a more ambitious foreign and security policy agenda, focusing on building webs of alliances to further India's national interests and increase engagement with multilateral organisations such as ASEAN. Focusing on building partnerships with Southeast Asia may present a valuable path to realise both Modi's domestic and international objectives.

In doing so, Indonesia stands out as a natural partner for India. New Delhi and Jakarta have a long post-independence history of engagement, initially brought about by cooperation in the Cold War-era Non-Aligned Movement. Deepening this engagement would reinforce the strategic evolution of India's Look East policy, not least through building partnerships in the Pacific to counter China's influence.

Importantly, increasing India's engagement with Indonesia would be a smart move for Mr Modi from a domestic political perspective. Championing ties with the world's largest Islamic nation would do much to bolster Modi's secular credentials and neutralise concerns over his perceived anti-Muslim leanings. [fold]

India's change in government also presents opportunities for Australia. Creative trilateral security arrangements between India, Indonesia and Australia would serve the strategic interests of all three states, particularly with regards to shared maritime security concerns. Australia has had its fair share of setbacks recently in relations with Indonesia, and the Abbott Government should embrace the opportunity to engage with Indonesia in this fresh multilateral context.

Indonesia is India's second-largest trading partner within ASEAN, increasing in trade volume from US$6.9 billion in 2007-08 to US$20.1 billion in 2012-13, with a target of US$45 billion by 2015. While this number pales in comparison to the $100 billion target set for China-India trade by 2015, the potential to grow the relationship remains strong.

Moreover, an agreement negotiated under the previous Congress-led government to hold annual summits between the two nations lays the groundwork to pursue an expanded strategic partnership. The agreement itself demonstrates the increasing importance of India-Indonesia strategic ties, and represents a level of Indian diplomatic energy otherwise afforded only to long-standing partners Russia and Japan. Shared maritime security concerns in the Indo-Pacific will create scope to build on the previous government's commitment to enhanced defence ties, and India's new government should particularly focus on doing so in the naval domain.

The introduction of fresh leadership in both New Delhi and Jakarta (following Indonesia's July presidential elections) will provide opportunities for both nations to reinvigorate strategic ties. In light of the domestic and international political incentives, Mr Modi would be wise to make this relationship a priority in the coming months.

You may also be interested in