In swift follow-up action, Indian warship visits Indonesia's Sabang port

File picture of Presidential ship INS Sumitra proceeding for fleet review. Photo: Twitter
On Wednesday, the Indian Navy patrol vessel, INS Sumitra, became the first-ever warship to sail into the Indonesian port of Sabang, strategically poised at the mouth of the Malacca Strait.

Underlining the importance New Delhi and Jakarta place on the visit, the vessel was welcomed to Sabang by traditional Indonesian dancers, Indonesian navy and air force officers, and Indian diplomats based in Jakarta, including the ambassador, P K Rawat.

This swift follow-up comes on the heels of thejoint announcement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo,in Jakarta on May 30,that an Indian-Indonesian joint task force would “undertake projects for port related infrastructure in and around Sabang.”

A fortnight before that, Luhut Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s minister for maritime affairs, on a visit to New Delhi to negotiate the agreement, noted that the 40 feet-deep port at Sabang was suitable for both civilian and military vessels, “including submarines.”

India is already building up the Andaman & Nicobar Islands as a tri-service command to watch over the eastern Indian Ocean, especially the Malacca Strait, the prime international shipping route through which merchant and military vessels transit between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.

But Port Blair, the headquarters of India’s Andaman and Nicober Command, is 500 nautical miles – almost 1,000 kilometres – from Sabang, in Banda Aceh. To exercise control over the Malacca Strait, the navy has at least one warship always on patrol in those waters. Access to Sabang Port will allow the navy to dominate Malacca more effectively.

Access to Sabang Port will allow the navy to dominate Malacca more effectively photo: Reuters

Indonesia shares Indian concerns about an aggressively rising China. During Modi’s visit last month, the two sides signed a Defence Cooperation Agreement. This will supplement a recently instituted “security dialogue”, a biennial dialogue between the defence ministers and a “joint defence cooperation committee” that will meet for the sixth time in August. The two armies train together in the Garuda Shakti exercises.

From May 24 to June 9, a navy corvette, INS Kulish, and a Dornier maritime patrol aircraft of the Andaman & Nicobar Command conducted the annual “India-Indonesia Coordinated Patrol” – where the two navies, in a gesture of friendship and cooperation, jointly sail along the maritime boundary between the two countries.

The Indian Navy also conducts coordinated patrols with the Bangladeshi and Thai navies. And last month, for the first time, the Indian and Vietnamese navies exercised together in the South China Sea.

A day after visiting Jakarta, Modi also signed agreements with Singapore, including a logistics support agreement that allows Indian warships to replenish in Singapore.New Delhi’s defence relationship with Singapore is the closest it has with any ASEAN country.

On June 1, addressing the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, also attended by key security managers including US Defence Secretary James Mattis, Modi declared that India would work with members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to maintain a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific.

In a signal that ASEAN is central to New Delhi’s Indo-Pacific strategy, India invited the heads of all ten ASEAN countries as guests of honour at the Republic Day parade in January.

According to the most recent data, about $3 trillion worth of cargo transits throught Malacca every year, in about 100,000 merchant vessels. Beijing’s concerns about this lifeline being cut – which strategists call China’s “Malacca Dilemma” – leads it to consider alternative routes that bypass Malacca, such as through Pakistan’s Gwadar port.

Beijing is watching the Indian Navy’s forays into Southeast Asian waters warily. In the English language on-line Chinese newspaper, Global Times, Liu Zongyi of the government-affiliated Shanghai Institute of Strategic Studies wrote: “After controlling the Sabang port, the Indian Navy can easily block the northern exit of the Strait of Malacca. Besides, the Indian Navy visited Vietnam and held a military exercise with the Vietnamese Navy before the dialogue… Despite Modi's recent softer stance, China needs to carefully watch New Delhi's diplomatic moves in the Indo-Pacific region.

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