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International relations

Modi and Widodo to discuss bolstering maritime defense cooperation

India and Indonesia seek to counter China's growing regional dominance

The INS Kolkata leads other naval ships off the coast of Mumbai, India.   © Reuters

NEW DELHI/JAKARTA -- Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Indonesian President Joko Widodo will meet in Jakarta on Wednesday to talk about maritime defense cooperation in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, where China is growing increasingly assertive.

Modi is to arrive Tuesday evening for a three-day visit. The two countries have been negotiating pacts in the fields of defense, space as well as science and technology. Some of the deals are expected to be signed during Modi's stay.

In recent years, the two governments have intensified their defense cooperation talks, with both sides showing keen interest in maritime domain awareness.

In other words, they want to take into account everything that could impact the security situations, economic benefits and ecosystems of the South China Sea and Indian Ocean.

Indian officials say naval cooperation is an important element of their country's defense cooperation with Indonesia, and discussions are underway to enhance collaboration.

Indonesia is India's closest maritime neighbor. Its Sabang Island -- situated on the northern tip of Sumatra, near the Malacca Strait, through which much of India's trade passes -- is 90 nautical miles from the Indian Andaman and Nicobar islands. New Delhi is keen to develop the geographically important Port of Sabang.

"We are very strong maritime neighbors and strategic partners," said Preeti Saran, secretary (East) in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs. "We are, in fact, natural partners in the Indo-pacific region."

Indonesian President Joko Widodo inspects a guard of honor during his ceremonial reception in New Delhi on Dec. 12, 2016.   © Reuters

During Modi's visit, the two sides are likely to sign a more substantive defense cooperation pact, upgrading their 2001 "agreement on cooperative activities in the fields of defense." The matter was discussed during Widodo's state visit to India in December 2016, when the two sides agreed to increase the frequency of defense exchanges, training and joint exercises, including those among special forces.

Back then, Modi and Widodo tasked their ministers with exploring joint production of defense equipment, technology transfers, technical assistance and capacity-building cooperation. This work is expected to figure prominently in the Modi-Widodo summit on Wednesday.

Earlier this month, Luhut Panjaitan, Indonesia's Chief Maritime Minister, visited India and highlighted a need to step up bilateral cooperation to create a balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region. He also referred to India's plans to invest in port development on Sabang, where Indonesia's westernmost cluster of islands are located. The port directly faces the Indian Ocean but is also close to the South China Sea.

"I think it is important to build a balance of power here so that no single super power can create instability," Panjaitan said in an obvious reference to China's expansionist moves in the region.

An unnamed Indonesian official accompanying Panjaitan was quoted by the Hindustan Times as saying that his understanding is that besides development of the port, Indian naval ships would be allowed to visit Sabang.

The summit, with its expected focus on boosting defense cooperation, comes with China growing more assertive in the South China Sea. Indonesia also has differences with China over the Natuna Islands in the South China Sea. Beijing says it has historical claims to the body of water.

An aerial view of China-occupied Subi Reef, part of the Spratly Islands chain in the South China Sea.   © Reuters

"China can now intercept U.S. aircraft quicker than before," said Teuku Rezasyah, an international relations lecturer at Indonesia's Padjajaran University. "Its military prowess is getting more incredible. Indonesia and India are both concerned about China."

The lecturer also emphasized the need for reciprocity in a maritime defense partnership. The Indonesian navy should be able to enter Indian ports as well, he said, while pointing out the need for parliamentary approval to allow a foreign navy to enter Indonesian territory.

Other topics Modi and Widodo could discuss include joint development of a container port in Indonesia's Banten Province, a new airport in Yogyakarta Province as well as ways to enhance bilateral trade and investment. Officials in Jakarta would also like the two countries to step up their cooperation in the aircraft and drone industries.

It is Modi's first visit to Indonesia since he assumed power in 2014, the same year Widodo became President. Apart from his 2016 India visit, Widodo traveled to New Delhi this past January to attend a commemorative summit to mark 25 years of the India-ASEAN partnership. All 10 leaders of Southeast Asia's political and economic bloc on Jan. 26 were guests of honor during India's Republic Day celebrations.

Modi and the ASEAN leaders took the opportunity to discuss greater maritime cooperation, which the Indian prime minister said was one of the key focus areas for growth and development of the Indo-Pacific region.

After Indonesia, Modi will visit Singapore. On Friday, he will deliver the keynote address at an annual Asian security conference, the Shangri-La Dialogue. It will be the first time for an Indian prime minister to be the keynote speaker.

The dialogue will bring together eminent leaders and defense experts from across the globe to talk about China's expansion in the South China Sea, the nuclear situation in North Korea and other issues. Modi will convey India's views on peace and security in Asia and talk about the role New Delhi sees for itself.

The dialogue "certainly provides an opportunity to our prime minister to articulate his thoughts about India's policies on peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region," said Saran, the external affairs ministry secretary. "And that would be the focus of [Modi's] keynote address."

On Thursday, Modi will make a brief stopover in Kuala Lumpur to meet newly elected Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad. 

Describing Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore as strategic partners, an Indian government statement on Monday said New Delhi is committed to deepening its relationships with individual ASEAN member states within the framework of the Modi government's Act East policy.

Nikkei staff writer Bobby Nuguroho in Jakarta contributed to this article.

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