The Indonesian city of Sabang that overlooks the Andaman Sea and global maritime traffic passing through Strait of Malacca became a matter of much Indian interest in May 2018 when Indonesia’s then Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs, Luhut Pandjaitan, invited New Delhi to develop the city’s port infrastructure. Within a fortnight, during the visit of India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi to Indonesia toward the end of May 2018, the two countries decided to set up a Joint Task Force that would ‘undertake projects for port-related infrastructure in and around Sabang’. More importantly, Sabang emerged as an Indonesian bookend of the Aceh-Andaman connectivity initiative in the India-Indonesia Shared Vision on Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. Two years on, the initiative has gained new traction, more stakeholders, and greater clarity of purpose. The two countries have set up a Joint Task Force to iron out the details of the project and discussed the initiative in their bilateral Foreign Minister-level Joint Commission Meetings as well as on the side-lines of their multilateral meetings, such as G-20.
However, Luhut’s Sabang proposal and subsequent discussions produced narratives in India which were controversial and invited rejections from the Indonesian strategic community. Reactions from Indonesia underline the need for greater clarity regarding both the intent and context of the initiative and a better understanding of Indonesia’s expectations in forging a strategic partnership with India. This paper intends to put India-centric narratives in perspective, shine more light on Indonesian motivations and expectations considering Indonesian foreign policy’s underlying principles, and highlight the real significance of the India-Indonesia Sabang initiative.
India’s Misinformed Sabang Debates: Military Base, Access and Balancing
Two years of debates have brought forth a few misinformed earlier discussions regarding the principal drivers and implications of Luhut’s Sabang proposal. One such misperception was that India was getting ‘a military base’ at Sabang in Indonesia. A more polished version of the narrative came in the form of India getting ‘access.’ An opinion piece in the Hindustan Times noted, ‘Indonesia has agreed to give India economic and military access to the strategic island of Sabang.’ Another India-based news report shared similar views. The idea of Indonesia offering ‘access’ to India via Sabang also figured in some of the writings coming from more informed members of the strategic community.
The ‘military base’ and ‘access’ narratives seem to have relied less on the Shared Vision of India-Indonesia Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and more on Luhut’s claim that the Sabang port’s “40-meter depth is good for all types of vessels, including submarines.” Those who follow Indonesia know that Luhut’s statement should be taken with a pinch of salt. Responding to the narrative, Dewi Fortuna Anwar, Indonesia’s leading strategic affairs expert, wrote, “Reports that India could use Sabang as a naval base are clearly misleading: Indonesia does not allow foreign countries to have military bases on its territory as this would violate its ‘free and active’ foreign policy doctrine.”
Another misperception came in the form of viewing the Sabang initiative entirely from the prism of balancing China and as a result of shared concerns between India and Indonesia about “Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.” The propagandist tone of the Global Times, an English-language mouthpiece of Beijing, lent credence to the ‘balancing China’ narrative. Global Times identified the Sabang initiative as a diplomatic move that ‘might wrongfully entrap itself (India) into a strategic competition with China and eventually burn its (India’s) own fingers.’ Responding to these narratives, another Indonesian expert noted, “…both China and India misunderstood Indonesia’s policies and intention concerning the Indo-Pacific region…Indonesia has never had any interest in building alliances, let alone allowing India or any other country in the world, to have full military access (military bases) on its territory. Rather Indonesia is focusing on multilateral institution-building as its main strategy in the Indo-Pacific region.” These clarifications carry greater validity since Indonesia had already expressed reservations against the Quad initiative and proposed its own alternative ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific. Indonesian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Retno Marsudi declared in January 2018, “…together with ASEAN, Indonesia will continue to contribute in advancing a strong positive cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. INSTEAD of a cooperation that is based on suspicion or worse, a perception of threat.”
Though it is probably true that Sabang never made it to the Indonesia-China BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) table, India is not the only country that Indonesia has approached regarding the development of Sabang. South Korea has been engaged in the development of the Sabang economy and tourism since 2012. Similarly, Japan has also been involved in the development of port infrastructure in Sabang. Moreover, as per a former Indian Ambassador to Indonesia, New Delhi had shown interest in building the port infrastructure as early as 2014-15. This would mean that when India was proposing to develop Sabang, Indonesia was signing infrastructure projects with China in bulk. China is engaged in developing a large number of infrastructure facilities across the Indonesian islands, including the Jakarta-Bandung High Speed Train project in the capital city of Jakarta. Indonesia. China also signed contracts worth US$ 23 billion in September 2018, aimed at infrastructure development in four corridors – North Sumatra, North Kalimantan, North Sulawesi, and Bali, assigned by Indonesia for BRI projects.
These varying narratives overlook the various reasons why the current Sabang initiative did not involve any military package for India. These reasons relate to Indonesia’s strategic thinking, the importance of Sabang for Indonesia, and the country’s approach towards the development of Sabang.
First, strategic autonomy constitutes the most important pillar of Indonesian foreign policy, often expressed via the Free and Active (Bebas dan Aktif) philosophy. Indonesia’s Ambassador to India, Siddharto Suryadipuro, declared recently via Twitter, “Like India, Indonesia’s free and active foreign policy has not and will never allow for military alliances and hosting of foreign military bases.”
Second, Indonesia’s decision to invite India to develop Sabang port is in tune with Jakarta’s efforts, of the last two decades, to develop Sabang as a local ‘tourism icon’ to attract international investment, and function as a gateway to Indonesia’s second-largest market after Java, namely, Sumatra. Approximately 50 million people or nearly 20% Indonesians live on the island of Sumatra and the Indonesian government declaring Sabang as a Free Trade Area and Free Port as early as 2000, provided concessions for traders and businesses on Sumatra. Though initial initiatives did not yield desired results, the process of developing Sabang as a special economic zone has gained new traction and international investors after the Widodo government launched its new maritime policy, known as the Global Maritime Fulcrum in 2014. Since then, new structures and marinas have been added to the port city (Image 1).
Image 1: Sabang Port in 2009 and 2015
Source: Google Earth Pro
Third, Sabang is a part of Indonesia’s historical national imagination and its archipelagic canvas is often depicted in the Sukarnoesque ‘Sabang to Merauke’ worldview. The phrase ‘Sabang to Merauke’ has become a part of post-independent Indonesian leaders’ political mobilisation strategy since Sukarno, Indonesia’s first President, used the rhetoric during the 1950s. Sabang in Aceh is the westernmost point of Indonesia, while Merauke in West Papua acts as the easternmost point. In 1961 Sukarno declared, “What is meant by Indonesia is what the Dutch called Nederlands Indië, that entire archipelago between Sabang and Merauke which is composed of thousands of islands. That is what is called Indonesia.” One can relate this rhetoric in the Indian context to the often-used phrase of ‘Kashmir to Kanyakumari.’
Finally, the port city of Sabang forms a strategic outpost in the Indian Ocean and provides Indonesia similar geopolitical leverage and vulnerabilities that the Andaman & Nicobar island chains provide India. Two of Indonesia’s more than 100 outlying islands – Rondo and Benggala Islands are a part of the Sabang regency, and Indonesia’s 2015 Defence White Paper has identified these outlying islands as vital sources of insecurity. Therefore, it is unlikely that Indonesia would aggravate this sense of insecurity by inviting any external power to Sabang.
Sabang’s Significance for India: Beyond Access and Balancing
The Sabang Initiative has figured in India’s official documents in four different but inter-related contexts; shared maritime vision in the Indo-Pacific region, bilateral comprehensive strategic partnership, a joint effort towards the development of port infrastructure, and Aceh-Andaman maritime connectivity and promotion of tourism in the Andaman Sea. These four contexts provide ample strategic space for India to carve a new milestone in its partnership with Indonesia and strengthen its leading power aspiration in the Indo-Pacific region.
First, the Sabang initiative for India is a status-signalling exercise that is likely to lend credence to India’s ‘leading power’ doctrine that entails ‘seeking a larger and deeper footprint in the world, supported by soft-power initiatives,’ ‘shouldering of greater global responsibilities’ and ‘role in peace-keeping and in keeping the maritime commons safe and secure.’ Indonesia is an emerging power, the leader of ASEAN, an important player in the Indo-Pacific region and the largest ASEAN economy. Indonesia’s Sabang invitation amplifies India’s regional strategic and economic clout. Indonesian President, Joko Widodo, declared, “India is a strategic defence partner…and we will continue to advance our cooperation in developing infrastructure, including at Sabang Island and the Andaman Islands.”
Second, the principal contribution of the Sabang initiative is not so much about providing India a military base in the Andaman Sea but more of India being an economic powerhouse, investor and infrastructure developer in its extended neighbourhood. India’s regional image has, by far, revolved around its market size and military prowess. Successful execution of the Sabang port infrastructure development programme would place India in the category of other major Asian economic players – China, Japan, and South Korea, which have made large-scale investments in Indonesia over the years. By contrast, India has not yet taken on any major infrastructure development project in Indonesia and has shown a lacklustre performance in completing the connectivity projects in mainland Southeast Asia.
Third, the Sabang initiative, along with the Aceh-Andaman economic and tourism connectivity project, provides India an important opportunity to decentralise its maritime partnership by fostering substantive maritime connectivity between the people of the two countries. The Aceh-Andaman Connectivity initiative aims at “enhancing connectivity (institutional, physical, digital and people-to-people) between Andaman and Nicobar Islands of India and Provinces in Sumatra Island of Indonesia to promote trade, tourism, and people to people contacts.“ It is noteworthy that Sabang attracted nearly 84 foreign yachts in 2017 and 95 sailing yachts in 2018 as a part of Aceh’s sail tourism initiative. The shared vision of India-Indonesia maritime partnership also aims at “promotion of sail tourism, cruise ships, marine adventure sports, diving and wellness tourism.”
Finally, the Aceh-Andaman economic and tourism corridor (Image 2) has seen new momentum and involvement of new stakeholders during the last two years. A major impetus, in this regard, has come from Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the provincial government of Aceh. Private businesses in India and Indonesia have also shown interest by hosting a business forum in 2019. The Indonesian Foreign Ministry convened within six months of Modi’s Indonesia visit – an India-Indonesia Investment Forum in Banda Aceh, Aceh-Andaman & Nicobar Connectivity Road Map, technical Focus Group Discussion in Banda Aceh and various seminars and business forums in Banda Aceh, Port Blair, and Chennai. Indonesia and India also held their first Joint Task Force meeting in December 2019 in which produced a new plan of action to develop the connectivity between Aceh and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. This action plan builds on “six areas of cooperation – trade and investment, infrastructure development in Sabang, connectivity development, marine and fishery, tourism, and exchange of culture, science and technology.” RITES, a Government of India Enterprise, which conducts feasibility studies for most of India’s international infrastructure projects has reportedly already completed its pre-feasibility study on infrastructure development in Sabang.
Image 2: Aceh-Andaman Maritime Tourism and Connectivity
Source: Author’s view using QGIS 3.10 and Mapbox
Finally, effective economic connectivity with Aceh can provide India easier and faster access to resources that New Delhi might need for the development of critical infrastructure in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Sabang is less than 900 kms (kilometres) from Port Blair whereas Chennai is 1,190 kms. Similarly, Campbell Bay near Indira Point on the Nicobar Islands, where India has been planning to boost its military presence, is just 166 kms from Sabang. Aceh’s acting governor, Nova Iriansyah, during the India-Indonesia Investment and Business Forum in Jakarta in November 2019, declared, “We can provide goods [to Andaman and Nicobar] more efficiently than for them to wait for a shipment from India…India’s islands needed construction materials for their growing tourism sector, and Aceh could export cement and deploy construction workers.”
Though the Sabang initiative appears promising, it is still in an incipient stage and faces various challenges. The most important challenge comes from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic which continues to limit cross-border people-to-people interactions and various tourist activities. Moreover, with Indian and Indonesian economies in a downward spiral, there will be less activism from either country to engage in infrastructure-building activities and promotion of maritime tourism.
Next, Aceh-Andaman connectivity would require India to open Andaman and Nicobar Islands to international travellers and this would require installation of new logistical, procedural and infrastructural facilities, such as immigration, customs, and visa offices. Although New Delhi has eased the rules governing foreign tourists travelling to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, more needs to be done to strengthen the tourism connectivity
Finally, as indicated above, India’s poor track record in completing the infrastructure and connectivity projects poses a critical challenge to the successful completion of the Sabang initiative. Most of India’s connectivity projects in mainland Southeast Asia involving Myanmar and Thailand remain incomplete even more than 15 years later.
The value of the Sabang initiative for India extends well beyond the narrow lens of base and balancing as it underlines the higher degree of trust that Jakarta and New Delhi have built over the years. This initiative can infuse new energy into an otherwise sub-optimal bilateral partnership and add a new shine to New Delhi’s leading power position in the Indo-Pacific region. Moreover, the Sabang initiative, along with the Aceh-Andaman connectivity initiative, presents a significant opportunity for the development of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Both initiatives will greatly aid in bringing the local economy into the mainstream national economy and develop critical infrastructure on the islands.
About the Author
Dr Vibhanshu Shekhar is Adjunct Professorial Lecturer, American University, Washington DC. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views are the authors and do not reflect the position of the National Maritime Foundation.
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