Reshaping Indonesia-India relations critical to 21st century Asia

indonesia-sukarno1Vibrant democracies, emerging powers, and partners in the unfolding Asian resurgence. India-Indonesia relations have a rich past, and is looking to zoom into a rich future, bristling with possibilities. Co-founders and fellow-travellers of the Non-Aligned Movement, India and Indonesia have imparted a contemporary strategic dimension to their multi-faceted relationship. From President Sukarno gracing the first Republic Day celebrations of 1950 to India hosting Indonesia’s then President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as Chief Guest at the Republic Day celebrations in 2011, the India-Indonesia partnership in the 21st century is acquiring new layers and depth.

The year 2014 saw a change of guard in both New Delhi and Jakarta, propelling self-made politicians from humble backgrounds to the top of the power ladder. The new leaderships in both countries are keen to seize the moment to infuse a new energy and vitality into this robust relationship.

Indonesia’s Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Dino Patti Djalal

Manish Chand, Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network (, caught up with   Indonesia’s Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Dino Patti Djalal in New Delhi for a free-wheeling conversation on the entire gamut of India-Indonesia relations, and much more. In this probing conversation, the suave and eloquent deputy foreign minister shares his views on the future trajectory of India-Indonesia relations, how the two countries can collaborate in areas like pro-poor technologies, a new kind of creative politics emerging in Indonesia and a radical transformation of the image of India from a country ridden with poverty to a country synonymous with enterprise and innovation. India used to be known as a country with a rich past, but now it is seen as a country with a rich future, he says presciently.

(Excerpts from the interview)

Q) India has had a special relationship with Indonesia that harks back to the heyday of the Non-aligned Movement. How do you look at the contemporary dimension of India-Indonesia relationship? Where is it heading?

A) It’s a very interesting question. Indonesia and India have a long history of relationships; it’s even civilisational, the civilizations of the two countries are interlinked, and the influence of the Indian civilisation is present throughout the archipelago. Also, we were the first nations to announce independence after the World War II. We had a good relationship between President Sukarno and Prime Minister Nehru, but in those days the relationship was shaped during the era of the cold war and non-alignment. I think the challenge today is — how do you rediscover that relationship in the post-cold war and the globalised world order.  These are the questions that challenge us. Definitely, the biggest area is in trade and investment. India is already very strong in Indonesia, in culture. In fact, our most popular form of music, called Dangdut, is inspired by  the Indian music; it is by far the most popular form of music in Indonesia. I think rediscovering and reshaping a 21st century partnership between two of Asia’s largest giants is the most urgent diplomatic foreign policy task before our two countries.

indonesia-defence1Q) You identified trade and investment as the most promising area of bilateral collaboration. We are already doing well in this area, but clearly there is scope for more. But looking at other aspects;  for example, recently there has been an effort to upgrade the defence partnership.  How do you see the strategic dimension of the relationship evolving in the future?

A) There is a very strong potential for that. Indonesia pursues an independent and active foreign policy, which means we cannot get into any alliance with any other country. And India pursues strategic autonomy. In Indonesia, we buy a lot of weapons from the US; we have some co-operation with South Korea to purchase submarines, and also with Spain. Indonesia is now trying to achieve minimum essential force by 2020 — it’s a misnomer as when we say minimum, we actually need to acquire a lot of equipment. India is one very potential defence partner, especially in the procurement of arms. You have the technology, and we have the political and strategic trust between India and Indonesia. There is no problem between our two countries, and we have programmes which can be synergised.

Modi and Jokowi: New Synergies

Q)  There is a parallel between the new Indonesian president and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Both leaders come from humble backgrounds – and there are a lot of symmetries in terms of the problems and challenges the two countries face.  Talking about Prime Minister Modi’s foreign policy, wherever he has gone, he has spoken about sharing developmental experiences, infrastructure-building and eliminating poverty. Do you see scope for development partnership between India and Indonesia, in terms of sharing experiences in some of these areas?

A) I do see that. The more I stay in India, the more I see how much we are alike. Indonesia and India are similar, not in terms of just the potential, but also in terms of the problems we face like governance issues, ethnic issues, identity issues, and so on. I think one of the areas that we can work on is on pro-poor technology. In Indonesia, we are very interested in how technology can be a driver in making progress in the shortest possible time.  And I know both Indonesia and India have experience in this. We have some pro-poor technology, and in areas of energy and education.

indonesia-businessI think the one area where we can work is promoting entrepreneurship. For some reason, in Indonesia and India, capitalism is a dirty world, and it should not be like that. It’s changing right now, but the question is how to make the whole population understand that.  In Indonesia, we found the answer, we changed the term capitalism to entrepreneurialism. When the term capitalism changes to entrepreneurialism, suddenly it makes the difference. We went to make entrepreneurialism the new and main socio- economic force in Indonesia.

Q) A new narrative of India is emerging, especially under the new prime minister where policy paralysis seems to be a thing of the past. How do you look at the India growth story in coming days?

A) I think first, there is one rule and it is how the country transforms. I think India will be emblematic of the ingredients of transformation and change.  It is the necessity of leadership. I think in several societies elections are important, but it is the leaders who make policies, who take risks, who change things, And I think Prime Minister Modi’s leadership will be critical to where India will be in next 5 to 10 years.

indonesia-aseanQ) Indonesia is the largest economy in ASEAN. And India has a strategic partnership with ASEAN.  How do you see the India-ASEAN relations evolving? And what’s your take on the East Asia architecture?

A) I think India has been a key part of the Indo-Pacific architecture, and has strong relationships in terms of the ASEAN-India partnership. But on the trade side, there is scope for more. For example, India’s trade with Singapore is $21 billion, and with Indonesia it’s $20 billion, but with others, it’s much less, with the Philippines it’s almost $2 billion. That’s not much given that the Philippines is one of the highest growing economies in Southeast Asia.

In other words, there is lot of scope for greater co-operation. I think it’s going to be one of the challenges. In terms of engagement between the business communities of India and the region, much work has to be done.

India’s image has changed, Soft Power matters

Q) Has the image of India changed in your country?

indonesia-bollyA) In Indonesia, we have started to think about India differently: from a country known for its poverty to a country known for its middle class, enterprise and innovation. And that difference in image is huge.  India used to be known as a country with a rich past, but now it is seen as a country with a rich future.  So I am going to be spreading this message throughout the region. That’s going to be critical. There is a strong Indian diaspora in Indonesia, and that will also help you with that. There is plenty of soft power in your culture. I like the fact that when Indians when go to a Southeast Asian country, it’s not hard  power diplomacy but soft power diplomacy that makes it very easier to accept.

Q) What’s the next big step in India-Indonesia relations?  When is the next high-profile diplomatic engagement between the two countries? Can we expect a prime ministerial visit from your country to India soon?

A) Prime Minister Manmohan Singh came to Indonesia last year. It was a very good visit, now we have a new government and you also have a new government. I think we need a high-level visit to boost this relationship. For President Jokowi, it’s too early for him, he has been there for only a few weeks. But I believe, one of the first big visits he should make is to India.

A New Kind of Politics

Q) In Indonesia, the power structure has been traditionally top-heavy, dominated by the old elite. President Jokowi’s rise to power exemplify a new kind of politics. Do you think a new generation middle-class or self-made politicians is going to emerge in Indonesia?

indonesia-jokowiA) He is the first one to become president outside the political and military elite. He is a complete outsider. So, his rise is a very interesting phenomena in the Indonesian politics. If he is successful, that will give rise to a new kind of politics, and more self-made people will come in the political arena.

In India’s transformation, leadership would be important but also in Indonesia and India, the quality of politics will be critical. Which means from your elections, what class of politician are brought to power. In Indonesia our lesson was that although we have a great guy at the top, but if we have a class of politicians who  are not matching that, then democracy will face a setback. It is important to have a good leader at the top, but also an equally good class of politicians in the middle and below.




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India Writes Network
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