Building on their growing economy and a shared vision of a pluralistic and inclusive Asia, India and Indonesia are poised to chart new frontiers in their multi-faceted partnership. In this wide-ranging interview with Manish Chand, Editor-in-Chief of India and World magazine and India Writes Network, Indonesia’s Ambassador to India Sidharto R. Suryodipuro outlines core values that bind India and ASEAN and maps a robustly optimistic trajectory of India-Indonesia partnership.
(Excerpts from the interview)
Q) India is hosting Special Commemorative Summit, where all the ASEAN leaders are going to be present and they are also the guest of honour at the Republic Day Parade. It is indeed a unique moment in India- ASEAN relations. How do you look at the importance of the summit and the way ahead?
A) We will be celebrating 25 years of the India-ASEAN dialogue relationship and the changes that have taken place. We will not only be celebrating the adding of years, but also the changes that have taken place in Southeast Asia and India. Twenty-five years ago, the India-ASEAN relationship was sectoral, now it has been upgraded to comprehensive strategic partnership. India has changed its “Look East” policy to an “Act East” policy. The commemorative summit would be an opportunity to add momentum to this growing relationship. It is an opportunity for India to further bolster its policy and also for ASEAN to do the same. It will also be an opportunity for India and ASEAN to address the changes that are happening in the world.
Q) Talking about specific outcomes and expectations, what are the possibilities of upscaling the economic partnership and the strategic partnership? What would be your concrete recommendations?
A) Connectivity would be the key, including physical and maritime. Our Indian counterparts always tell us that India and East Asia are maritime neighbours so we want to put more meat into this framework. We need to sit down and talk more on this and find out what would be possible and desirable. We also need to focus on soft connectivity in terms of regulations and standards. It is a relationship where we need to go in-depth, and this means going into specialised and technical issues. People-to-people connectivity needs to be improved, that includes air connectivity and facilitating more travel between Southeast Asia and India.
In case of Indonesia, the number of Indians going to Indonesia is growing by 25 per cent every year. The number has doubled to over four years and now stands at 4,60,000. There are 28 direct flights per week from Indonesia to India but we have none from India to Indonesia. This is something that needs to be addressed.
Q) What about the emerging areas of cooperation in digital economy, innovation, entrepreneurship? How do you see the prospects of these new areas playing a bigger role in the India-ASEAN economic partnership?
A) India is a powerhouse in the new economy like IT, e-commerce, services. The prospects and potential, therefore, are there. Indonesia is very keen to strengthen relationship with India in these areas. Enhanced cooperation with India will greatly benefit Indonesia’s vision of making the country, “The Digital Energy of Asia,” a campaign we have launched to brand Indonesia as an IT and e-commerce hub.
I am working with relevant ministries in Indonesia. I am also looking at establishing networks in India, with governments and industries. We have an ambitious vision of making Indonesia Asia’s IT hub. Recently, I was talking to the Executive Assistant of the Minister of Communications and Information Technology and we are working on how to strengthen the relationship. There are plans for my IT minister to visit India in the near future.
Q) Given extensive cultural and civilizational linkages between India and Indonesia, what is your view on the way forward in people-to-people ties and tourism?
A) We are already exchanging a lot of Ramayana troupes. We need more Indonesian students coming to India and Indian students coming to Indonesia. Our relationship goes back a long way and we need to nurture the shared history and the common values. While we are working on it, we also need to build on it for the future. As far as tourism is concerned we need more Indonesian tourists coming to India.
Q) What is your view of the role of India in the ASEAN region as a counterbalance to China’s growing preponderance in Southeast Asia? How do you see the equations evolving?
A) ASEAN is important because it provides a platform for people to get together and talk. For ASEAN, it is not about containment but inclusiveness. And in any case, everybody brings something of value to the table. India brings in economic growth, a large market and expertise in various fields. China also brings in some positive factors. So, none of us are putting it in a black and white picture. What we are trying to do is bring out the positive out of all partners in the region, and if there is a downside to anybody’s approach we are making sure that we manage it in the right way possible. The best way to manage such issues would be talking about them.
Q) Are you trying to say that this notion of rivalry and competition between India and China is not a very constructive way to go forward?
A) Well, I don’t believe that even people in Beijing and New Delhi agree that this is the way forward.
Q) In what ways can India play a bigger role in ASEAN?
A) India can play a bigger role in ASEAN in terms of trade, investment, education and tourism to expand its presence in ASEAN.
Q) Does ASEAN see India as a net security provider to the region?
A) Yes. The importance of the discussions is to make sure that everybody is contributing in a more positive way. Maybe we should look at more joint exercises that also involve humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, counter-piracy and fishing.
Q) How is India seen in Indonesia among the political and diplomatic establishment as well as among the people of Indonesia? Does Indonesia back a bigger role for India in the Security Council and the global stage?
A) The rise of India is a fact of life. We have, since the early 1990s, been supportive of India’s global aspirations and its relationship with ASEAN, and will continue to do so. And we have so much to build on since we know each other quite well. I don’t think anyone in Indonesia considers India to be a threat.
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