By: Neeta Lal

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is moving aggressively to expand India’s sphere of interest into Southeast Asia to counter China with a five-day visit to Indonesia this week, his first ever to Southeast Asia’s largest country.

After Indonesia, Modi will touch down briefly in Malaysia to congratulate the newly reinstated Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, the 92-year-old strongman who returned to power May 9, before wrapping up his three-nation tour in Singapore where he will deliver the keynote address at Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual security meet, on June 1. He will be the first Indian Prime Minister to deliver this address.

Analysts view Modi’s outreach as an attempt to consolidate his foreign policy legacy after four years in power and in the run-up to the general elections in 2019. The visit to Indonesia and Malaysia marks the latest in a series of diplomatic powwows with world leaders. The 67-year-old has lately been on a foreign policy overdrive engaging with – in a short span of three months — Chinese premier Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, Netherlands PM Mark Rutte, not to mention transatlantic telephone diplomacy with US President Donald Trump on a range of bilateral issues.

Some see this whirlwind of activity as an endeavor to carve space for India in the emerging new balance of global power in a ‘multipolar’ or ‘polycentric’ world. The current regional geopolitical climate — as well as both nations’ foreign policy visions – lends itself well for collaborations. Like India, Indonesia too is trying to position itself as a rising power in an Indo-Pacific region marked by rapidly shifting power equations.

New Delhi figures as a natural strategic ally in Jakarta’s own new foreign-policy model in which it sees itself as a maritime power. In 2016, Indonesia confronted China over claims in Beijing over its so-called “nine-dash line” extending into the resource-rich Natuna area. Neither Delni nor Jakarta is unmindful of the implications of China’s growing dominance on regional geopolitics. As Beijing attempts to undercut India’s geographical advantages in the Indian Ocean Region with its checkbook diplomacy, India is seeking collaborations with like-minded nations like Indonesia.   

There are other reasons for cooperation. Like India, Indonesia is one of the very few countries in the region with heft and credibility to counter China. Indonesia has also been a steady India ally in key areas, including cooperation in maritime defense. During the visit, both sides hope to rejuvenate the strategic and security dialogue and to negotiate a new comprehensive defence cooperation agreement.

Both Delhi and Jakarta have been preparing meticulously to make the talks a success.

Ahead of Modi’s visit, Indonesia’s coordinating minister for maritime affairs, Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, was in India to discuss bilateral cooperation in the maritime sphere. In a veiled mention to China, he repeated that India and Indonesia are big enough to not “lean towards any superpower, and this makes India a sensible partner for Indonesia.”

Like Delhi, Jakarta too is cool on Xi’s ambitious Belt and Road project involving vast infrastructure spending designed to tie the region to Beijing. Luhut too questioned China’s unilateral claims on the South China Sea, noting this includes parts of Indonesia’s maritime exclusive economic zone. “India and Indonesia relations are important to the balance of power in Asia…We do not want to be controlled by BRI,” Luhut said, much to Delhi’s delight.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo himself has visited India twice, first on a state visit in December 2016, and then in January this year during the India-ASEAN Commemorative Summit. In January, India’;s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj too visited Indonesia to co-chair the fifth meeting of India-Indonesia Joint Commission. Indian and Indonesian ministers also inaugurated the second meeting of ASEAN-India Network of think tanks.

Modi’s exchanges with Widodo will focus on trade, strategic ties and strengthening security cooperation. Also on the table are sharing intelligence information and military expertise on terrorism, technical cooperation on railway and space technology and strategies to contain China’s hegemonic  moves in the region. The two will also talk about developing a cruise connectivity project as well as a seaport in Aceh province, close to India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, considered an effective counter to China’s BRI.

In an attempt to woo Delhi, just days ahead of Modi’s visit, Indonesia also granted India economic and military access to Sabang island, also known as Weh island, which lies 710 km southeast of the Andaman Islands and less than 500 km from the entrance of the strategically sensitive Malacca Strait, through which almost 40 percent of India’s trade passes.

This access is regarded as a triumph for New Delhi’s ‘Look East’ policy which seeks to cultivate extensive economic and strategic relations with Southeast Asian nations to bolster its standing as a regional power and a counterweight to the strategic influence of Beijing.  

Like the Quad, of which India is a part along with Australia, US and Japan, Widodo is keen to promote a plan called the “Global Maritime Fulcrum,” which includes a commitment to Indo-Pacific sea lanes to balance the BRI. India is on board with that. Strengthening of cultural ties is also big on Modi’s trip with scheduled visits to the ninth-century Hindu Prambanan temple and the largest Buddhist temple in the world Borobudur, both located near Yogyakarta, Central Java.

Be that as it may, Modi would do well to remember on this trip that Beijing too has been investing and efforts in wooing Indonesia. Chinese premier Li Keqiang was in Indonesia earlier this month with a basketful of goodies. He signed a number of key agreements to boost trade and commerce, including setting up of hydropower projects. China is also Indonesia’s third largest foreign investor.

On the contrary, bilateral trade between India and Indonesia hovers around a relatively paltry US$13.43 billion, making it fourth among Indonesia’s trading partners after China, Japan and the United States. More so considering Indonesia is South East Asia’s largest economy, and accounts for almost one-third of the ASEAN economy, while India is Asia’s third largest after China and Japan. Hopefully Modi’s visit will set right this skew, while also removing some of the other inequities that have prevented this relationship from blossoming to its full potential.

Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based editor and journalist who tweets at @neeta_com. She is a longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel.