The diversion of three Indian Navy warships to tsunami-hit Indonesia on Tuesday may be only to provide swift humanitarian assistance. But the move also brings the focus back on the larger strategic significance of India-Indonesia maritime cooperation.
The warships—Tir, Sujata and Shardul—were in Singaporean waters when they were asked to head to Palu in Indonesia. They are carrying 30,000 litres of bottled drinking water, 1,500 litres of packed juices, 500 litres of milk and 700 kilograms of biscuits, among other relief materials. India has also dispatched a C-130J plane, which is carrying a field hospital from Agra, and a C-17 heavy-lift aircraft with NDRF load, mainly comprising tents, generators & medicines.
Barely two months ago, when INS Sumitra became the first Indian warship to dock at the strategically located Sabang deep-sea port in Indonesia, it was indicative of the tightening strategic clinch between two close maritime neighbours.
In a little over a month from now, one corvette and a maritime reconnaissance aircraft are also slated to head for Indonesian waters to participate in the first ever joint maritime exercise from November 12 to 18. This will have Beijing bristling, just as it was when New Delhi and Jakarta decided to jointly develop the Sabang port in Indonesia.
Located close to the Straits of Malacca—a vital shipping lane—Sabang in Aceh province on the island of Sumatra is barely 90 nautical miles from Indira Point, the southernmost tip of India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
The stopover by INS Sumitra was part of an “operational turnaround” to stock up on fuel and provisions before it set sail for the Indian Ocean. But the strategic importance of this port visit cannot be discounted as India pushes ahead with its ‘Act East’ policy.
The Sabang port as well as the Andamans straddle important sea lanes of trade and energy flow. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands also dominate the Six Degree and Ten Degree channels—important sea lanes through which thousands of commercial shipping vessels sail through each year.
India’s assistance in the development of Sabang, located towards the northern part of the Malacca Strait, is also seen as part of the overall strategy to counter China’s growing maritime footprint in the region.
The decision to upgrade Sabang with Indian assistance is part of the ‘Shared Vision of India-Indonesia Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific’ unveiled after Prime Minister Narendra Modi met President Joko Widodo in Jakarta in May this year.
While China is the elephant in the room, both New Delhi and Jakarta have been seeking to downplay any strategic aspect to their collaboration in developing Sabang and enhancing its connectivity with the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Both sides deny any military dimension, maintaining that this has not figured in bilateral discussions.
However, both sides concede that India and Indonesia will be “essential building blocks in the shaping of the Indo-Pacific regional architecture and defence cooperation will be an important aspect”.
The growing strategic salience of the bilateral relationship is also evident in that during PM Modi’s visit, the two sides also inked a new defence cooperation agreement and upgraded ties to a New Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. Till the inking of this fresh pact with India, China was the only country with whom Indonesia had this kind of elevated partnership.
There has been an incremental increase in defence cooperation in the last year, said sources. An Indian company, the Bukhanvala Group, will be supplying ceramic armour and Tata Motors will provide water cannon trucks to Indonesia’s largest state-owned defence company P T Pindad.
While Indonesian officials have said that Sabang will be opened to port visits by navies, both sides, for now, choose to emphasise the push for connectivity instead between two countries that share historical ties.
However, there is no doubt that Chinese muscle-flexing in the maritime domain including territorial claims on the South and East China Sea and its expansionist tendencies beyond this region have had both New Delhi and Jakarta concerned.
While Indonesia says it is not one of the claimant states as far as the South China Sea is concerned, it remains wary of Chinese expansionism in this region. Last year, in an act of sovereignty it renamed the northernmost waters of its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea as the North Natuna Sea.
The shared vision document outlines the security architecture envisaged by the two nations in the Indo-Pacific. It is also the first that India has with a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which enjoys pre-eminence within the 10-member grouping.
Engagement with ASEAN countries has become an increasingly important element of India’s ‘Act East’ policy. While speaking on the Indo-Pacific in his keynote address at the Shangri La Dialogue in June this year, PM Modi had said “ASEAN has and will be central to its (Indo-Pacific) future.”
Noting that India and Indonesia “share similar perceptions of the evolving maritime environment in the region and world at large”, the shared vision document highlights the need for “strengthening the existing security architecture in the Indo-Pacific which is anchored in ASEAN-led mechanisms”.
Its preamble emphasises the importance of a “free, open, rules-based, peaceful, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region where sovereignty and territorial integrity, international law—The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)in particular, freedom of navigation and overflight, sustainable development and an open, free, fair and mutually beneficial trade and investment system are respected”.
In the domain of maritime safety and security, the shared vision document also stresses the need for strengthening naval cooperation between the two countries and enhancing information-sharing related to the Indo-Pacific.
The Indian army, navy and air force already conduct joint exercises with their Indonesian counterparts. The document mentions the commencement of regular naval exercises. It’s learnt that expansion of training of the armed forces of both sides is on the anvil.
The shared vision document also details the steps New Delhi and Jakarta intend to take to “enhance connectivity (institutional, physical, digital and people-to-people)” between Sabang and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Having offered to provide Jakarta assistance to upgrade Sabang’s infrastructure, both sides have moved swiftly and formed a high-level joint task force comprising officials from India’s shipping ministry and Indonesia’s maritime affairs ministry to decide on the way forward. A feasibility study is learnt to be under way for upgrading Sabang’s infrastructure.
For now, tourism, trade and people-to-people contact are being described as the cornerstones of the efforts to connect the Andamans with Sabang.
But China has not missed the signals emanating from New Delhi and Jakarta, prompting the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, The Global Times, to remark: “If India really seeks military access to the strategic island of Sabang, it might wrongfully entrap itself into a strategic competition with China and eventually burn its own fingers.”