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Indonesian President’s India Visit Highlights Partnership

February 2, 2011

By Robin Bush

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (often nicknamed “SBY” here) cemented economic and political ties between Indonesia and India last week with his state visit to India. He was the chief guest at India’s Republic Day – an honor which has not been accorded to an Indonesian president since President Sukarno was the chief guest for India’s first Republic Day in 1950.

The most tangible outcome of the visit was the signing of trade and investment agreements worth over $15 billion. This is just the latest reflection of the burgeoning economic relationship between the two countries. In 2005, India and Indonesia signed a Strategic Partnership in New Delhi, and since then trade volume between the two countries has tripled from $4 billion to $12 billion in 2010.

As impressive as that is, trade and business ties are not the only, or even the primary, linkages between India and Indonesia. Cultural and historical ties are deep – with shared art, dance, and architectural influences linked to a pre-Islamic, Hindu-Buddhist era in Indonesia. Even Indonesia’s Islamic expression is deeply influenced by its initial introduction to the country through Muslim traders travelling from India and is heavily infused with Sufism.

In 1947, India was one of the foremost champions for Indonesian independence, with Nehru vigorously lobbying the UN to recognize the young nation’s independent status. Indeed, some scholars argue that the world woke up to the Indonesian struggle with the Netherlands in large part due to Nehru’s actions. The friendship was further strengthened through the Non-Aligned Movement which Nehru and Sukarno led in the mid 1950s.

Now, India and Indonesia continue to share common political perspectives, and are considered respectively the first and third largest democracies in the world. They also share many of the same challenges and problems: both have diverse societies in which ethnic and religious conflict sometimes erupt into violence and where extremism is a concern. Both countries struggle with decentralized governance and with pervasive corruption that threatens to derail the economic growth and development currently propelling them forward at an astonishing pace. Poverty is also a shared and crushing problem, and India and Indonesia both face the dilemma of having massive resources and wealth, accompanied by the world’s largest populations of poor people.

Though problems and challenges are vast, a commitment for reform has emerged. From a diverse ethnic and religious population has come a commitment to pluralism and tolerance. From the weight of poverty has come a commitment to economic growth and the eradication of corruption which is necessary for true development. India and Indonesia, often spoken of as the two “I”s in a newly expanded BRIIC, have many historical, cultural, and political ties to draw from to enable productive partnerships that will not only benefit their nations, but South and Southeast Asia more broadly.

Robin Bush is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Indonesia. She can be reached at [email protected].


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