Prabowo in India: Opportunities for Co-operation as China Tensions Rise

29 July 2020 Jarryd de Haan, Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Research Programme


Indonesian Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto was recently in India for a three-day visit, from 26-28 July. During a Defence Ministers’ Dialogue, Prabowo met with his Indian counterpart, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, to discuss strategic co-operation in defence and technology sharing. Details on what was specifically discussed during that meeting were not released, with a defence statement noting only that both sides ‘Agreed to further enhance the bilateral defence co-operation in mutually agreed areas’ and that ‘Both the Ministers committed themselves to further strengthen bilateral co-operation in these areas and take them to the next level of deliverables.’ There were, however, reports that both sides discussed the possibility for India to export BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles to Indonesia.


The visit took place with both countries sharing ever more common ground over their concerns about China, and even led some Indian news outlets to report that Prabowo’s visit was to give diplomatic support against the Chinese. Given the timing of the visit, and with no significant outcome except for a vaguely written statement, it is quite possible that China was the primary subject of discussions.

Tensions between India and China have heightened considerably, with twenty of Indian troops dying after clashes with Chinese troops along a contested border in Galwan Valley. As noted in a recent FDI Associate Paper, due to those escalating tensions, ‘India needs to strengthen its economic ties with its neighbours in South Asia and countries elsewhere that seek to reduce their dependence on China.’

Indonesia’s concerns about China, on the other hand, are centred on the South China Sea dispute. The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) claims on the South China Sea through its “Nine-Dash Line” include a significant portion (around 83,000 square kilometres) of Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), lying to the north of the Natuna Islands. Just a few days before Prabowo left for India, the Indonesian Navy held a four-day exercise which began on 21 July. During those exercises, 24 warships and 2,000 personnel participated in exercises focussed on amphibious warfare simulations, some of which took place in the contested waters north of the Natuna Islands.

While both India and Indonesia share similar concerns about China, the different nature of their challenges has yet to lead to significant levels of co-operation. For the most part, India has remained quiet on the issue of the South China Sea. The latest statement from India came indirectly through the Philippine Defence Minister, who stated that India has expressed its intent to carry out navigation activities in the South China Sea. Given the tense nature of its relationship with China, India has had to strategise and prioritise where it might direct any resistance to the CCP, as de-escalating tensions has been in India’s best interests. If the relationship continues to deteriorate, and China shows no interest in de-escalation, it may be prudent for India to take a stronger stance on the South China Sea dispute as a tactic to discourage China from pushing too far on their disputed terrestrial border. India’s move to choose a new Taiwan envoy already shows that the Indian Government is willing to counter China’s strategic interests in other areas as a consequence of its undermining of the sovereignty of India’s borders.

Supporting the position of the United States and South-East Asian countries in the South China Sea dispute, could help India to garner further support for its own issues along its contested border. The Galwan Clash spurred an outpouring of support from US lawmakers and officials, as well as the US Secretary of State, who stood alongside the British Foreign Secretary, to say that:

You can’t go make claims for maritime regions that you have no lawful claim to. You can’t threaten countries and bully them in the Himalayas. You can’t engage in cover-ups and co-opt international institutions like the World Health Organization.

From Indonesia’s perspective, a stronger Indian naval presence in the region could be very welcome, especially if it brings an enhanced level of security in waters too vast for Indonesia’s own navy to effectively patrol. In a still broader sense, developing closer trading ties with India could also help to reduce Indonesia’s economic dependence on China.

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