Ramped India-Indonesia military ties positive step forward: experts

By Vishnu Makhijani


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New Delhi : Ahead of Indian Defence Minister A.K. Antony's planned visit to Indonesia later this year, the two countries have ramped up military ties by agreeing to explore the possibility of jointly producing military hardware, a move security experts here have hailed as a major step forward in New Delhi's Look East policy.

At some stage, the Indian and Indonesian navies could even consider conducting joint or coordinated patrols of the Malacca Straits, considered the world's busiest waterway through which some 50,000 ships transit every year, the experts say, adding this, however, would first require the concurrence of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Noted security expert K. Santhanam welcomed Thursday's announcement in Jakarta on the roadmap for India-Indonesia defence ties, describing it as a major success for India's political-military diplomacy.

"India is walking on the two legs of political and military diplomacy. This kind of engagement is part of the natural process of dialogue to improve our relations with our neighbours," said Santhanam, former head of defence think tank Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).

He also pointed out that Indonesia was India's closest littoral neighbour.

From the southernmost tip of the India's Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal, Indonesia's Sumatra province is just 80 nautical miles away as the crow flies. India has recently established a tri-services command in the Islands' capital Port Blair to guard the approaches to the Malacca Strait.

"Indonesia is the heavyweight in the (southeast Asian) region. It is now coming out of its internal turbulence (following a change in government). It is sensible and useful to strengthen political, economic and ties between the two countries," former IDSA deputy director Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar told IANS.

Addressing a press conference in Jakarta Thursday on the conclusion of his four-day visit to Indonesia, Indian Defence Secretary Shekhar Dutt said the two countries could jointly produce military equipment.

"We visited your aircraft and shipbuilding industries, and I see the possibility of large collaboration and cooperation, co-production and co-development and joint production," he maintained.

Addressing the press conference, Dutt's counterpart, Lt. Gen. Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin, said: "Indonesian and Indian delegations have conducted discussions and (made) presentations. There will be a continuity of these, including the supply of weapons.

"There are some (issues) to be followed up in the fields of education, training and (rescue) operations after natural disasters," he added.

Antony is expected visit to Indonesia later this year during which further discussions would be held on improving military ties.

During his visit, Dutt held discussions with Indonesian defence ministry officials and also visited military industries in West Java province to explore the co-production of aircraft, ships and weapons, Sjamsoeddin said.

According to Major General Dardi Susanto, director general of strategic defence at the Indonesian defence ministry, his country could benefit from India's expertise in the production of radars, electronic equipment and artillery weapons.

Indonesia has allocated $1 billion for purchasing military weaponry over the next five years and

Bhaskar felt India should seize the opportunity. "If India is to become a credible military power, it has to start exporting hardware, even if this begins from low-end weapons and equipment," he maintained.

On the question of joint patrols of the Malacca Strait, both Santhanam and Bhaskar agreed this could be the logical corollary of improved India-Indonesia military ties, even though Malaysia that has gone on record to say it was opposed to "outsiders" in the region to control sea piracy, of which 50 incidents were reported ion 2006.

"Piracy in those (Malacca Strait) waters is of common concern to all of us," Santhanam said.

The 960-km narrow sea lane, wedged in between Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, is one of the world's busiest waterways with about 50,000 ships plying the route annually, carrying half of the world's oil and one-third of the world's trade.

"The Malacca Strait is of international importance like other water bodies like the Panama Canal and the Suez Canal. It's a matter of ensuring business as usual even if some countries are opposed to international patrolling," he added.

Santhanam was formerly chief technology advisor to the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and was one of the principal architects of the India's 1998 Pokhran nuclear test.

Bhaskar felt Malaysia's opposition to joint patrolling was indicative of the "divisions" in the original five ASEAN countries, with the grouping now encompassing 10 countries.

"Of the original five, Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore have always had empathy with India while Malaysia has tended to remain distant. It is now a question of bringing Malaysia around," he added.

This apart, "ASEAN would have to concur with the concept of joint patrols", Bhaskar maintained.

The US is keen on a policing role for India in the Malacca Strait. India has indicated its readiness, provided it is welcomed by the littoral states.

New Delhi has been closely monitoring the situation in the Strait and has rendered help when this was asked for. In 1999, Japan sought help to rescue a hijacked ship.

When India extended help to US vessels in 2002 for the safe passage of "high value" American cargo, it produced no adverse effect on the region. On the occasion, the "capability of India" was matched by its "acceptability" to the regional powers, Western diplomatic sources say.

(Vishnu Makhijani can be contacted at [email protected])