Indonesia might give India access to a deep sea port in Sabang, including to its naval vessels. Addressing a Delhi audience here today, Luhut Pandjaitan, maritime affairs minister in the Jokowi government, said, “India and Indonesia have started naval drills in 2017, but we can explore doing more between our coast guards. This will become even better when the Sabang seaport is established with India. Sabang port has a depth of 40 metres which is good even for submarines.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to travel to Indonesia for a bilateral summit with Joko Widodo in the next couple of weeks. Among his engagements, Modi is expected to announce an Indian hospital in Sambang, which is just over 700km from Andaman & Nicobar islands. Luhut said the Jokowi government wanted India to invest in an economic zone in that same area, which is not particularly developed. There is speculation that Modi might undertake a sea journey to Sambang to highlight how close Indonesia is to India, but sources say defence and space would be areas of cooperation during Modi’s forthcoming visit.
“Indian coast guard ships now make regular visits to Indonesian ports and emphasize the closeness between the two countries. The Indonesian side has expressed interest in getting commercial investment in the port of Sabang, which is the westernmost point of Indonesia. This port has a deep draft but rudimentary facilities,” said Gurjit Singh, former ambassador to Indonesia.
Questioned about Indonesia’s response to OBOR and China’s decision to station missiles on the disputed Spratlys in the South China Sea, Luhut said it was a “sensitive matter”. He said they had raised the issue with the Chinese side, but “in a friendly manner.”
Luhut said, “I spoke with my Chinese counterpart about the 9-dash line. They don’t deny that Natuna island is ours. But then the 200-mile EEZ is also ours and that goes beyond the line. I ask why they are claiming the South China Sea. They say they have a historical claim, its part of the sentiment of the mainland, and it was the route taken by the Chinese explorer Zheng He. I said if this is true, then, when Krakatoa exploded, Indonesian ash settled around the world including Beijing, and we could claim this.” After years of denying they had a problem with China’s claiming the seas and territory around, Indonesia renamed its sea the Natuna Sea.
In fact, in a rare admission, the Indonesian minister, considered to be very close to Jokowi, described OBOR as a “Chinese proposal”. “We do not want to be controlled by OBOR. We would like it to link to our maritime policy, of a global maritime fulcrum.” Chinese premier Li Keqiang was in Jakarta earlier this week pushing OBOR projects with the Jokowi government.
“India-Indonesia relations are important for the balance of power in Asia,” Luhut said.