Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday embarks on a five day visit to Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore to consolidate India’s ties with three important strategic partners in the Southeast Asia region with key agreements expected in the areas of defence and space.
Modi’s first stop will be Indonesia—the largest country in the region and a close maritime neighbour. According to estimates, the shortest distance between India’s Andaman Islands and Indonesia’s Aceh province is not more than 80 nautical miles. Indian naval ships make regular visits to Indonesian ports and joint patrolling of the seas has been going on for some years now.
A key highlight of the visit could be an agreement that allows India access to the strategic island of Sabang at the northern tip of Sumatra and close to the Malacca Strait. That Indonesia could give India access to the island was indicated in a recent speech in New Delhi by visiting Indonesia’s coordinating minister for maritime affairs Luhut Pandjaitan.
India is looking to invest in the port and the economic zone here and if this agreement is clinched during Modi’s current visit, it will give New Delhi a foothold in a region. It will come as a shot in the arm for the Modi government’s ‘Act East’ policy. Such a foothold in the region is also expected to offer greater scope for India to raise its profile in the Indo-Pacific region.
In a statement posted on his Facebook page, Modi said he would be in Jakarta at the invitation of Indonesian president Joko Widodo. “This is my first visit to Indonesia as Prime Minister. I am looking forward to my discussions with President Widodo on 30 May, as also to our joint interaction with the India-Indonesia CEOs Forum. I will also address the Indian community in Indonesia,” he said.
“Both countries are multi-ethnic, multi-religious, plural and open societies. I am confident that my visit to Indonesia will create greater synergy between Asia’s two largest democracies and further elevate our bilateral ties,” he said.
According to Harsh V. Pant, professor of international relations at the London-based King’s College, there was an increasing recognition in Jakarta of the “role that New Delhi can play in structuring a favourable balance of power in the region.”
Indonesia is not formally a part of the India-US-Japan-Australia quadrilateral dialogue initiative but could become a serious dialogue partner given its profile. According to news reports, Indonesian president Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, wants to promote a plan called the ‘Global Maritime Fulcrum’, which includes a commitment to Indo-Pacific sea lanes in order to balance China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Economically, both countries are two of the fastest growing economies in the region. India is Indonesia’s largest trading partner among South Asian countries and fourth biggest trading partner in the world. Bilateral trade reached $18.13 billion last year, up 22.34 % from 2016. India was the sixteenth biggest foreign investor in Indonesia. Both countries aim to grow two-way trade to $50 billion by 2025, while two-way investment is expected to hit $50 billion.
From Indonesia, Modi will travel to Malaysia for a brief meeting with newly elected prime minister Mahathir Mohammed, an Indian foreign ministry statement said.
Modi will then leave for Singapore on the last leg of his Southeast Asia visit where he will deliver a speech at the Shangrila Dialogue, an annual conclave in Singapore that brings together the region’s defence ministers and senior military officials. The Dialogue is organised by the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) with the support of the Singapore government. “It would be an opportunity to articulate India’s point of view on regional security issues and maintenance of peace and stability in the region,” Modi said in his Facebook post.
During the bilateral segment of the visit, Modi “will be focusing on enhancing India-Singapore partnership in areas of Fintech, skill development, urban planning and artificial intelligence. Singapore entities have become major partners with India in areas like urban development, planning, smart cities and infrastructure development,” the prime minister said in his post.