Commemorating the 25th anniversary of the India–ASEAN engagement, New Delhi invited heads of state from all 10 nations to jointly be chief guests for India’s Republic Day celebrations on January 26, 2018.
Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo has confirmed his presence for the occasion. In an exclusive interview with INDIA REVIEW & ANALYSIS, Indonesia’s Ambassador to India, Sidharto R.Suryodipuro, reminded Nilova Roy Chaudhury that the first Chief Guest for India’s Republic Day celebrations, in 1950, was President Soekarno of Indonesia.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q: Ambassador, your thoughts on the India-ASEAN commemorative summit.
A: Our participation in the India-ASEAN commemorative summit would be to show our commitment to ASEAN-India relationship. This will underline the importance of ASEAN’s centrality as well. Prime Minister Modi has expressed support for the three pillars of ASEAN community- political, security and economy as well as socio-cultural aspect.
Q: Does this enhance the bilateral relationship?
A: High-level visits will always enhance bilateral relationships. I have been here for four months. What I have experienced is there is a very strong interest and momentum at the grassroots, at the bureaucratic level, technical level and business community. So high-level visits will create further momentum and that is important.
Q: President Joko Widodo paid a state visit to India in December 2016. Both India and Indonesia reaffirmed their desire to deepen defence cooperation, economic partnership and cultural engagement. How would you describe the current status of the relationship?
A: Indonesia and India are close friends, and the foundation of their relation is very strong based on historical and cultural links. Both countries have many things in common as the largest democracy and the third largest democracy respectively, with a pluralistic society, big markets and growing middle class. We also share values and commitment to rule of law, good governance, and promoting peace and prosperity in the region.
We are in the process of finding the right time for security dialogue. The first meeting would be early next year. The framework within which it is envisaged is bi-annual. In the field of maritime security, there have been regular naval ship visits, joint naval exercises, visits of high-level delegation, coordinated naval patrols between the Andaman waters and the Sumatra waters.
We are negotiating a new defence cooperation agreement. We both have similar maritime orientation. Maritime issues have become a priority of the Indonesian government since President Jokowi in 2014 pledged to transform Indonesia to be a global maritime fulcrum.
Act East policy introduced by Prime Minister Modi and his maritime vision of Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) provided greater opportunities for both countries to expand their maritime cooperation.
Indonesia and India are among countries that support freedom of navigation, over flight, and unimpeded commerce based on principles of international law, as reflected in UNCLOS. Both countries also attach great importance on the need to ensure our waters are safe, secure and open to all lawful navigation. In this context, this year Indonesia and India have begun talks on delimitation of exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The first round of negotiations began this year and we are hoping to have the second round in India soon.
Q: Is China, particularly, a worrisome factor in the maritime strategy?
A: In the case of Indonesia, we are a country where throughout history ours has been an area of maritime connectivity. So our interest is in making sure that as our waters are open for all lawful navigation, all countries would respect and support that. What we provide is a public good. It would be in the interest of all countries to support this.
Q: Counter-terrorism cooperation between India and Indonesia is unique because both have significant populations which could have been radicalised but are not. This means something is working right for both countries. Does this figure in the bilateral dialogue?
A: Exchanges happen at the very high level. But both sides have an interest in developing dialogue at a more practical level. So, we have exchanges at the intelligence level. But we need a more structured dialogue. We need to have more discussions on fixing the modalities.
But apart from that, let me tell you an anecdote. What is the difference between India and Indonesia? Indonesia has a majority Muslim population and its tourist sites are Hindu and Buddhist. India is a country of Hindu majority and its tourist sites are Islamic.
Q: How do you deal with the world looking at only one side of Islam?
A: We promote our face of Islam that it is a peaceful religion. That is possible to have Islam and development, Islam and economic growth, Islam and empowerment of women. All of this is seen in Indonesia. A point of similarity between India and Indonesia is that we have the depth and breadth of tradition to draw on in addressing intolerance. Not every country would have such multi-culturalism.
Q: What aspects do you want to focus on in bilateral relations?
A: Indonesia-India relationship goes back a long way in history. The first chief guest of India’s Republic Day celebrations was President Soekarno. India was a strong supporter of Indonesia’s independence. We worked together for the Asia-Africa conference and also non-alignment movement. We did grow apart but in the past 10-15 years, conscious efforts were made to grow to grow together for we have shared values, shared geographic location and a shared vision for future.
On the economic side, we have issues such as trade, investment and connectivity. In particular, air and maritime connectivity.
Flights have exploded in the past year from Indonesia to India. Our Air Services Agreement is to have 28 flights per week from both sides. We have exhausted those flights, but India has not begun any flights. I am making efforts to make the aviation companies understand the growth potential as 475000 Indians are expected to travel to Indonesia every year, which is the same as Indians going to Germany. Maritime connectivity is at a more rudimentary level.
Q: What are the opportunities in trade?
A: This year our trade has grown in a very robust way amounting to 27 per cent. Now Indonesia enjoys a trade surplus because of palm oil and coal. But we must remember that palm oil and coal are natural resources and what that means is that while you can monetise it, what we haven’t put is the cost to the environment.
With quadrupling the tariffs on Basic Duty on Indonesian palm oil from 7.5 per cent in July to 30 per cent in December, the question is what kind of signal is India sending? Is India trying to manage its international trade by obstructing imports because at the high level talks the idea was to address the deficit by expanding trade both ways. So, it is uncertain and we are still confused about the signal that India is sending. My fear is that Jakarta might see this as disincentive to proceed on the opening of other items that is of interest to India. We should avoid downward spiral and work in a more constructive manner.
Q: Are there any other areas you want to focus on?
A: People to people connectivity is important. We now have only 40,000 Indonesians coming to India. We want more Indonesian students coming in. We are working to establish linkages in particular in IT, finance and management. There is an increasing inquiry by Indonesian doctors for short-term training courses in India. We want strong institutional set up.We are also looking to set up a youth forum. Both the countries share common traits like the rise of the millennials. They drove the election process, they have a stronger say in policies regarding environment and a strong social media presence.