Indian naval presence in Sabang could provide surveillance opportunity to India.


The EurAsian Times on 29 May 2018 quoted an editorial in the CPC mouthpiece Global Times, stating “China has always kept a positive outlook towards India’s overseas port investments, but that doesn’t mean Beijing will turn a blind eye on India’s military collaboration with Indonesia. China’s extensive use of Malacca Strait means its economic and energy security gets threatened if India builds a military base at Sabang port in Indonesia”.

The Global Times warned that if New Delhi planned to get military access to the strategic island of Sabang, it might get entangled in a conflict with China and eventually regret its decision.

The news was reported after Indonesia’s Minister Coordinating for Maritime Affairs, Luhut Pandjaithan visited New Delhi in April 2018. He had told the media referring to Sabang that “the port’s 40 meters depth is suitable for all kinds of vessels including submarines”.

China’s apprehensions are not unfounded if this news report is taken into account. They would have realised that India and Indonesia together would become a formidable combination in the Indo-Pacific. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Joko Widodo signed 15 MoUs, including on defence and security cooperation on 29 May 2018. They welcomed the plan to build connectivity between Andaman-Nicobar and Aceh to unleash the economic potential of both areas. It was decided to set up a Joint Task Force to undertake projects for port related infrastructure in and around Sabang.

Going back in time, India and Indonesia had begun exploring the idea of developing Sabang as far back as 2014-15. It was an economically unviable proposition at the time. But now with an upgrade of ties to “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership”, bilateral trade is likely to peak to US $50 billion. In 2017, the growth of trade was 28.7%. India is optimising its trade with ASEAN, which will lead to sustainable and mutually beneficial trade relations with Indonesia. There are a number of untapped areas that are being examined by the Joint Task Force. The procedural impediments are being looked into. The economic potential will be further unleashed by establishing connectivity between Andaman Nicobar Islands and Aceh province.

PM Modi also invited Indonesian business groups to invest in India through the “Make in India” initiative. MoU was also signed between Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Kadin) and Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). CII is setting up an office in Jakarta.

Bilateral cooperation is also being initiated in health, pharmaceuticals, railways, civil aviation, development of ports and surrounding areas for people to people contact and to facilitate economic activities. Access to clean, reliable and affordable energy is critical for economic growth of the country and therefore all avenues such as solar, wind and nuclear would be examined. It will be necessary to cooperate in the promotion of energy efficient technologies, new and renewable energy technologies and a shared vision of replacing fossil fuel while maintaining energy security.

The agenda is very comprehensive and is in tune with good neighbourly relations.

At this stage, an examination of Indonesia’s internal electoral dynamics and geopolitical landscape is essential. It was the first time in their history that the country held elections on 17 April 2019 for the posts of President, Vice President and members of national, provincial and local assemblies at the same time, in one day, without a hitch. This speaks very highly of the political awareness of the citizens and the deep roots that democracy has taken in Indonesia.

Indonesia has always punched below its weight, because of its inward looking policies, given its domestic compulsions. It has SE Asia’s largest population, largest economy and the largest geographic area. The country is home to more Muslims than any other country in the world and yet it has had success with democracy. The notion of Islam and democracy being incompatible has been proved wrong by Indonesia.

Former US Secretary Defence, James Mattis referred to Indonesia as a “fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific area”. The US is increasingly interested in bringing Indonesia closer in the emerging Indo-Pacific security architecture, more so since it has over 13,000 islands stretching across Indian Ocean to the Pacific. The present dispensation in the Pentagon and US State Department appears to be pursuing policies that Secretary Mattis had announced.

Seen in the wider canvas of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), there is a very strong defence and strategic convergence between India and the US, the partnership having been lifted to a 2+2 ministerial level. With the return of the Modi government in Delhi, the continuation of strategic policies is expected. America’s efforts are to co-opt Indonesia as the fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific and embracing India as an important strategic partner. So the recent warming up of ties between India and Indonesia offers opportunity to blunt China’s increasing assertiveness. The Indonesian Minister for Coordinating Maritime Affairs, Luhut Pandjaithan, during an interaction with the press stated very clearly that Indonesia would like to see India as a balancing power to China in the seas adjoining Indonesia. Indonesia has outstanding areas of dispute with China. The maritime boundary north of the Natuna islands between PRC, Indonesia and Taiwan has remained an issue of friction. The Natuna islands are located more than 200 km from the island of Borneo and is one of the outermost areas of Indonesia. Recently, Indonesia has commissioned a military base in Selat Lampa on Netuna Besar island, part of the Natuna islands. Though Indonesia is not a claimant state in South China Sea but Jakarta and Beijing have had several maritime skirmishes in this resource rich area, including one in 2016 when an Indonesian patrol boat seized a 300-tonne Chinese fishing vessel. Several hours later, a Chinese coast guard vessel rammed into the fishing boat. This incident gave Indonesia a reason to create this base, which has roughly 1,000 military personnel. President Jokowi has made it clear that the Natuna islands are Indonesia’s sovereign territory. China’s claim of the nine-dash line makes Natuna’s adjacent waters potentially explosive. China objected to Indonesia’s naming of seas adjacent to Natuna as North Natuna Sea, stating that it was within its territorial waters.

The Rondo island, Indonesia’s northernmost island in Sabang district is only 163 kilometres from Indira Point, the southernmost point of Campbell Bay of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The Sabang island overlooks the Strait of Malacca through which passes the entire trade to and from the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Indian naval presence in Sabang could provide surveillance opportunity to India and add to the existing Indian Ocean Maritime Domain Awareness fusion centre, a flagship project in which approximately 36 countries are sharing white shipping data. This kind of awareness provides better opportunity to the Indian Navy for responding to any crisis in the Indian Ocean and better security to global commons in Sea Lanes of Communication in the IOR. This is an essential ingredient for “net security provider” to its neighbourhood.

In this geographical context, the Andaman & Nicobar Islands are not too far from Sabang and technology will make it even nearer now that President Joko Widodo and Prime Minister Modi have begun their second innings.

Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha is former Commander in Chief, Western Naval Command and Chief of Integrated Defence Staff. He is currently, Member Board of The Sunday Guardian Foundation, and Chairman, Board of Trustees, India Foundation.


NOTE: Virendra Kapoor was unable to write this week. His column will return next week