JAKARTA - US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday (Oct 29) rejected China’s “unlawful claims” in the South China Sea and pledged to cooperate with Indonesia “in new ways” to ensure maritime security in the area.
He praised Indonesia’s “decisive action” in safeguarding its maritime sovereignty in the waters surrounding Natuna Islands.
“I am looking forward to cooperating together in the new ways to ensure maritime security protects some of the world’s busiest trade routes,” Mr Pompeo said at a joint press conference with Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi in Jakarta.
The US Secretary of State is in the Indonesian capital on a stopover in a five-nation Asia tour that has already taken him to India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. He is due to visit Vietnam later on Thursday.
Ms Retno said the South China Sea should be maintained as “a stable and peaceful sea” where international law is respected and implemented.
Ties between Indonesia and China have in the past been tense over the issue of sovereignty of the lucrative fishing waters around the country’s northern Natuna Islands, which lie between Malaysia and Borneo.
The country’s exclusive economic zone, a sweep of sea extending 200 nautical miles from shore, overlaps with China’s “nine-dash line” claim in the South China Sea.
Incursions by Chinese fishing boats, escorted by Chinese coast guard vessels, on several occasions had raised the ire in Jakarta, prompting increased Indonesian patrols and security presence in the area.
Experts here say a strong US military presence in the region may help to contain China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea but Indonesia, in principle, will never enter into any formal alliances with major powers.
China is Indonesia’s top trading partner and second-largest source of foreign direct investments after Singapore.
Ms Retno said that she reiterated Indonesia's “principle of free and independent” foreign policy during the meeting with Mr Pompeo which “went very well and was productive.” She also said it was held in “a very transparent and cordial environment”.
She also said she re-emphasised the need to pursue inclusive cooperation amid these challenging times and for every country to be part of the solution to ensure world peace, stability and prosperity.
In Jakarta, Mr Pompeo met President Joko Widodo and addressed GP Ansor, the youth wing of the world’s largest Muslim mass organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama or NU.
Mr Pompeo’s visit to Asia is widely seen as an effort by Washington to bolster regional allies against Beijing, as well as a test for Indonesia’s longstanding policy of neutrality on foreign affairs.
Earlier this month, the US lifted a travel ban on Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto, who has been barred from visiting Washington for 20 years over alleged human rights violations.
Besides discussing the South China Sea issue, President Joko and Mr Pompeo vowed to strengthen cooperation in the health sector and the economy with the aim of expediting the recovery amid the pandemic.
They also agreed to deepen defence cooperation by boosting military procurement, training and exercises, intelligence sharing, and maritime security cooperation in the region.
Mr Pompeo said the US will look into boosting investments in the digital and infrastructure spheres.
The US official also said that he and Ms Retno reaffirmed the importance of keeping “our shared values at the heart of our relationship and at the heart of a free and open Indo Pacific”, referring to a US-led strategy that many observers say is aimed at containing China’s growing influence in the region.
On her part, Ms Retno promoted cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, a concept backed by the 10-nation Asean regional bloc.
She said: “For more than 50 years, Asean has played a significant role in maintaining peace and stability in the region.”
“We are committed to promote the Indo-Pacific cooperation that is open, inclusive, transparent and rules-based,” said the Indonesian foreign minister.