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The Indonesian-Malagasy Relationship: Reviving Austronesian Ties in the Indian Ocean

09 Aug 2023
By Ridvan Kilic
Andafiavaratra Palace, home of the Prime Minister of Madagascar. (Antananarivo, Madagascar). Source: Maky (Alex Dunkel)/

Until now, Indonesia’s links to the island of Madagascar across the Indian Ocean has been primarily historical. With some initiative, the potential for a new era among two likeminded nations is close.

Indonesia surprisingly has a lot in common with the island nation of Madagascar, which happens to be the Indian Ocean’s largest island. Both countries are members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and share a deep-rooted Austronesian identity. Despite the same ethnolinguistic links between the two countries, however, the contemporary Indonesia-Madagascar bilateral relationship is very much underdeveloped.

However, Indonesia could harness its strong cultural links with Madagascar by strengthening its bilateral defence and economic ties with the Austronesian-speaking country. One way it can do this is by deepening Bluewater cooperation with Antananarivo. Indonesia is currently going through a blue economic revolution of its own, and economists have identified Madagascar as an ideal location for transit hubs along blue economy trade routes between the western Indian Ocean and the Asia-Pacific.

Traditionally, Indonesia’s principal geostrategic focus has been Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific. But Jakarta is also an Indian Ocean nation and a member of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). Indonesian President Jokowi Widodo’s Global Maritime Axis Doctrine envisions making Indonesia’s strategic maritime position the cornerstone of the country’s foreign policy. Thus, Jakarta could begin to put the doctrine into practice by enhancing its Indian Ocean footprint through Madagascar.

Historic Austronesian family ties  

Madagascar was first settled during or before the mid-first millennium by Austronesian peoples, who sailed across the Indian Ocean from the Indonesian archipelago. At the time, a thriving maritime trade network in the Indian Ocean run by the Austronesian peoples of Southeast Asia was well underway. They had already established trade routes with southern India and Sri Lanka, expanding as far as Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, resulting in the formation of Austronesian settlements in Madagascar. The trade network subsequently became the maritime silk road which was primarily established and operated by Austronesian seafarers from Southeast Asia.

Today, the Malagasy people, an Austronesian-speaking ethnic group make up the overwhelming majority of Madagascar’s population. The Malagasy people are mostly descendants of Austronesian settlers from Indonesia. There is also a sizable Malagasy population in the neighbouring island country of Comoros. Moreover, the Malagasy language is the national language of Madagascar and is spoken by approximately 25 million people in Madagascar and the Comoros.

Contemporary bilateral ties 

While Indonesia has an embassy in the Madagascar capital of Antananarivo, the Madagascar embassy in Tokyo is accredited to Indonesia. The Indonesia-Madagascar trade relationship is also chronically underdeveloped. In 2021, Indonesia only exported US$64.6 million worth of products to Madagascar, whereas Madagascar exported US$43.2 million worth of its products to Indonesia during the same period. At present, China is the top import partner for Madagascar and has the highest trade volume with countries in the Indian Ocean – US$900 billion. Indonesia and Madagascar have both recently agreed that a new Indonesia-Madagascar preferential trade agreement will greatly boost trade ties between the two Austronesian-speaking nations.

Last year, the two countries also discussed deepening bilateral defence and maritime security ties. According to the Bahasa-speaking Malagasy defence minister, Richard Rakotonirina, “Indonesia’s leadership is important in maintaining the security of the maritime area in the Indo-Pacific.” Madagascar identifies itself as an Indian Ocean Island nation and is struggling to curb illegal fishing vessels from entering its waters and exclusive economic zone. Madagascar is a hotspot for industrial illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing. The country is currently losing an estimated US$80 million a year from IUU fishing alone. IUU fishing is also threatening the livelihoods of an estimated 1250 coastal fishing communities across Madagascar.

New era

Moving forward, Indonesia could strengthen bilateral ties with Madagascar by opening a consulate-general in Toamasina, which is home to Madagascar’s chief seaport, and facilitate Madagascar’s plans to open its first and long-awaited embassy in Indonesia. The two countries could also begin negotiations on a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA), and Indonesia can invite Madagascar to become a dialogue partner of ASEAN. This would bring Madagascar closer to ASEAN regional architecture and might be the catalyst for other western Indian Ocean Island states like the Comoros, Mauritius, and Seychelles to join the ASEAN Regional Forum. This will enable discussions between all parties on an ASEAN-Comoros-Madagascar-Mauritius-Seychelles FTA.

There is also a great opportunity for Indonesia and Madagascar to grow their economic relationship through the emerging blue economy sector. The blue economy comprises a range of economic sectors that aims for the sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and jobs while preserving the health of the ocean ecosystem. This can include a wide range of economic sectors, from fishing, aquaculture, maritime transport, coastal renewable energy, water desalination, and coastal, marine, and maritime tourism. Today, the growing blue economy sector is estimated to be worth more than US$1.5 trillion globally. It provides over thirty million jobs and supplies a vital source of protein to over three billion people worldwide. The sector is predicted to grow to US$3 trillion by 2030. Nonetheless, Madagascar has yet to begin tapping into its blue economic potential.

An Indonesia-Madagascar Memorandum of Understanding on deepening blue economy cooperation would underpin the blue economic partnership between the two countries. This would enable Indonesia to share its expertise and technical skills in the sector with Madagascar. The partnership will likely ensure sustainable development, economic growth, and produce essential resources such as energy and food in both countries.

Indonesia could also deepen its defence ties with Madagascar by proposing an Indonesia-Madagascar special strategic partnership deal. The new agreement should include unwavering support for freedom of navigation and unhindered trade in the Indo-Pacific, and reinforce the need for peaceful resolution of maritime regional disputes in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Both countries are parties to UNCLOS. It could also emphasise ASEAN’s centrality and the importance of an ASEAN-led institutional architecture for regional peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.

The deal could ensure Madagascar and Indonesian militaries both have reciprocal access to their respective military training areas. This will subsequently increase shared military training and military operations. The training will be particularly beneficial for Madagascar’s defence forces stationed along the coastal and maritime areas of their country. The deal could also ensure Madagascar defence cadets have greater access to military education programs in Indonesia. Minister Rakotonirina is a graduate of the Indonesian military academy. Overall, the new special strategic partnership will strengthen the capacity building, combat readiness, and military postures of both countries.

On a multilateral level, Indonesia together with Madagascar could try to bring the Indo-Pacific’s two largest regional institutions closer together. They can do this by proposing an annual ASEAN-IORA Regional Leaders Forum. Ultimately, through the Austronesian-speaking nation of Madagascar, Indonesia could finally begin to exert some of its growing clout in the Indian Ocean.

Ridvan Kilic is a Master of International Relations student at La Trobe University. His research interests include the Australia-Indonesia bilateral relationship, Indonesian foreign policy, and domestic affairs, ASEAN, the Quad, and the Indonesian diaspora community. Ridvan’s primary focus is Indonesia, Australia, ASEAN regionalism, and the Indo-Pacific.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.