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Modi in Indonesia: Jakarta will never go against China; neither will it alienate India

By Shubham
|

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is currently visiting Indonesia - the Southeast Asian archipelago - for the first time as the premier. Initially, he was supposed to visit the port of Sabang where he was to inaugurate a hospital and port development infrastructure, said a top minister from Indonesia during his visit to India earlier in May.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the President of Indonesia, Joko Widodo at a meeting at Istana Merdeka in Jakarta, Indonesia

Indonesia's Coordination Minister for Maritime Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan said during his visit to India that India's contribution towards developing the port city of Sabang in the Aceh province, not very far from the Andamans, would ensure some "balance of power" in the South China Sea. Modi was supposed to travel some distance to Sabang by ship but it was cancelled later because of weather conditions and logistical conditions.

But Pandjaitan also clarified that it was his personal view and therein lies the crux of Jakarta's foreign policy.

Indonesia is most concerned about its own interests

It is natural for the Indian media to perceive Modi's visit to Indonesia as one to grow the anti-China platform in the South China Sea but the thing is: Indonesia is concerned most about serving its own interests and would not enrage any side for the sake of its own gains.

The current Joko Widodo government of Indonesia is pursuing a very balanced foreign policy approach. It though has promoted a "global maritime fulcrum" approach, it has also traditionally projected its reluctance to be a part of the South China Sea dispute. The minister also said that there should not be "any power projection" in the South China Sea. True, there have been instances of clashes near Natuna islands where both Indonesia and China lay claims and Jakarta later established military facilities in the nearby islands and also renamed the contested water territory as North Natuna Sea.

But Indonesia has also made it a point not to make the confrontations its primary foreign policy objective and ensure that it is not perceived to be a pro- or anti-side to any particular nation. For one of the prominent members of the Non-Aligned Movement which had once been a major movement in international diplomacy, this balanced approach is not something unusual.

The Indian establishment, hence, should not expect too much from Indonesia when it comes to its counter-China policy.

The Indonesia minister, when asked about his country's position on the deployment of Chinese missiles in the South China Sea, avoided a direct answer and played it diplomatically, saying Jakarta has always tried to respond on this issue "very carefully".

Jakarta's reaction to the July 2016 ruling against the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the South China Sea was more about restraint and it asked all the parties involved to remain cool and not to escalate the tension in the region. Neither did Indonesia make any official reference to the verdict which went against China.

The Indonesian minister also said that the best way to deal tensions with China was not to engage with the media and resolve them by holding talks with each other. This is a position which is hardly followed in India when it comes to New Delhi's tensions with Beijing.

Indonesia treats China's BRI scheme with caution

Regarding China's much-publicised Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Indonesia is also playing it in a balanced way. Although it has said no to the initiative, but it has offered limited projects in a few selected regions that it think can benefit from the scheme. Its position is not to get controlled by the Chinese project and balance it with its own global maritime fulcrum policy.

Indonesia doesn't care about West's concern over China

The Widodo government has not cared to pamper the West either. When Widodo came to power in 2014, the same year Modi also did, the West thought he would be another key man in its anti-China campaign. It backed him during his election campaign since he promised to open up the Indonesian economy to foreign investments but was left disappointed when Widodo made way for more Chinese investments.

The Widodo government gave China the contract of the highly contested Jakarta-Bandung high speed railway and not to Japan, the West's ally, and also went on to execute several drug dealers including two Australians - something which also left the West annoyed. But Widodo didn't care. We also do not see Indonesia, the largest country in Southeast Asia, in the Quad group involving India, Australia, Japan and the US to contain China.

Jakarta has a very simple line of action in its foreign policy domain. It is not getting involved in any military tussle with any side whatsoever and wants to serve its own economic interests before anything else. From China, it wants to gain through technology and trade/infrastructure while from India, it needs help to develop port. Also, it will be closer to India for establishing a contiguous maritime zone which is devoid of any anti-national activities.

For those in India who think that India will add another friend to its group to take on China, more disappointment could lie ahead.

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