Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Joko Widodo of Indonesia, through their 2018 joint statement “underlined the importance of stronger connectivity, particularly on sea links, in order to facilitate economic cooperation and people-to-people contact” and “welcomed the plan to build connectivity between Andaman Nicobar-Aceh to unleash the economic potentials of both areas.”1 It was decided to set up a “Joint Task Force to undertake projects for port related infrastructure in and around Sabang.” The leaders also emphasised on strengthening and broadening the “already robust” defence cooperation. Over the last two years, both sides have taken few initiatives and merit assessment.
First connectivity between Aceh and Port Blair.2 It was envisaged that the shipping link would boost the economy of Andaman Islands with that of western Sumatra (Aceh province). In less than a year of the announcement of the joint statement, the Aceh Chamber of Commerce dispatched an Indonesia merchant vessel KM Aceh Milenium with 150 tonnes of assorted cargo of “coffee, vegetables, spices, vegetable oils, furniture and construction materials (sand, rocks and cement)” for exhibition at Port Blair.3 Although these are low value products, the shipment was hugely symbolic and signalled the viability of such a shipping link. The construction material is particularly important given that it is transported from mainland India (over 700 nautical miles from Kolkata and Chennai) to Port Blair which is not only expensive but takes a long time.
The Indonesian envoy at New Delhi labelled the visit by KM Aceh Mileniumas the “first step in forging business connectivity”4 and was hopeful that Port Blair could emerge as the hub for trade and boost the tourism sector. Such voyages can be expected to gather momentum and the number of transits between Malahayati Port, Aceh and Port Blair could gather momentum and provide the much needed impetus to short sea shipping in the Bay of Bengal region.
Second is about defence and security cooperation between India and Indonesia; in July 2020, the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) and the Bakamla RI (Indonesian Coast Guard) signed a MoU on ‘Maritime Safety and Security’ which is expected to enhance cooperation and working mechanism between the two maritime law enforcement agencies.5 The bilateral Security Dialogue (the first was held on 09 January 2018) involves discussion on issues such as “countering terrorism, terrorist financing, money laundering, arms smuggling, trafficking in persons and cybercrime”. The military exchanges are marked by joint exercises and training between the respective armies (Special Forces), and air forces and a student exchange programme between military universities. The Indian and Indonesian Navy conduct coordinated patrols; besides naval ships make reciprocal goodwill port calls, participate in fleet reviews and other naval events such as the MILAN in the exercises at Port Blair.
However, a new situation has emerged in the Great Nicobar Island-Aceh crescent with the arrival of Rohingya refugees in waters off Aceh in Indonesia. In July this year, the local fishermen and other members of the community in North Aceh district assisted 94 Rohingya women, men and children embarked on a broken-down wooden boat to land ashore at the Lancok Beach purely out of humanitarian considerations.6 This is not the first time that Rohingya refugees have been rescued by the local Acehnese fishermen; in 2015, the locals had played a crucial role in rescuing and brining ashore stranded Rohingya and Bangladeshis, who had been abandoned by human traffickers at sea.
The surprise sighting of the Rohingya near Aceh this year can be attributed to weak surveillance and monitoring of maritime traffic and movement of other smaller vessels in this region. Nicobar Islands and Aceh have also been identified as important nodes in the contraband smuggling route in Southeast Asia. For instance, in 2019, the Indian authorities seized 1,156 Kilograms of crystalline methamphetamine in Nicobar Island.7 The consignment may have originated in Malaysia/Thailand. Similarly, drugs are known to be smuggled into Aceh Province from these countries through the sea route and other alternative paths.8
This necessitates a robust Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) in the Great Nicobar Island-Aceh crescent that witnesses heavy maritime traffic before it enters/exits the Straits of Malacca. The current arrangements of coordinated patrols by the Indian and the Indonesia navies are not sufficient but it is hoped that the ICG and the Bakamla RI, the two law enforcement agencies, should now be able to fill some of the weaknesses and gaps.
The 2018 India-Indonesia Joint Statement identified “cooperation in defence industry and technology as areas of great potential” and directed officials to “expand mutually beneficial collaboration between their defence industries for joint production of equipment, technology transfer, technical assistance and capacity building as well as sourcing of defence equipment”. This is a potential trigger to jointly develop MDA which is inherently technology intensive.
Among the many tools for MDA, the UAVs have been most useful. These are potent platforms and offer numerous benefits through sustained surveillance and monitoring of sea areas. Earlier this year, Indonesia unveiled the prototype of its weapons-capable medium-altitude long-endurance UAV (MALE UAV) developed by PT Dirgantara. The company claims that it can remain on task for more than 24 hours and two prototypes would undergo extensive testing throughout 2020. 9 Similarly, India is developing Rustom-II (Tapas) MALE UAV and its surveillance payloads are electronic intelligence (ELINT), communications intelligence (COMINT), Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR0 Electro Optical (EO) systems.10 Joint development of maritime surveillance platforms such as UAVs would be a pragmatic approach to ensure a robust MDA.
As far as maritime connectivity is concerned, the progress so far is not enough to justify the euphoria that was associated with the joint statement. It is useful to keep in mind that international shipping operates on commercially viable models and should be self-sustaining; it cannot survive on subsidies by the State governments or be just a symbolism.
Views expressed are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.
This article was first published in Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi website on August 11, 2020. Click here to read