US, Indonesia stepping up cooperation

American defence chief also wants to discuss maritime security cooperation with Vietnam

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo welcoming US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis to the presidential palace in Jakarta yesterday.
Indonesia's President Joko Widodo welcoming US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis to the presidential palace in Jakarta yesterday. PHOTO: REUTERS

US Defence Secretary James Mattis yesterday completed a heady day of meetings in Indonesia in a bid to reinforce defence relations between the United States and South-east Asia's largest nation.

While the visit was widely seen as a counter to China's growing military presence and influence in the region, it was also in line with a key part of a new US national security strategy unveiled last week, which centred on building partnerships and strengthening alliances.

"I'm here to listen to your leaders and understand what it is we can do to assist you," Mr Mattis told reporters after a courtesy call on President Joko Widodo at the Istana. "One democracy to another, you who are so important here in the Indo-Pacific region."

The former commander of the US Central Command has also had meetings with Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Wiranto, Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu, armed forces chief Hadi Tjahjanto and Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi.

Mr Mattis is in Jakarta as part of a week-long tour of Asia, which includes a stop in Vietnam just days ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War launched on Jan 30, 1968.

He has said that maritime security cooperation, in view of Beijing's territorial claims in the South China Sea, will be among the issues he hopes to discuss in Hanoi.

China claims almost all of the waterway, where about US$5 trillion (S$6.6 trillion) in cargo passes every year, while Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have overlapping claims.

Indonesia is not a party to the territorial dispute, and it enjoys mostly friendly ties with China.

But Beijing's claims in 2016 that parts of Indonesia's waters off the Natunas are its "traditional fishing grounds" had led to some tension.

Bilateral ties took another turn last July when Jakarta named waters in its Exclusive Economic Zone, just off its northern perimeter, the North Natuna Sea, an act of resistance to Beijing's ambitions in the South China Sea.

Senior editor Prashanth Parameswaran of the Washington-based current affairs website The Diplomat says Indonesia and Vietnam are critical to US efforts to build a security architecture that promotes a free and open Indo-Pacific. "Indonesia - the world's largest archipelagic state and biggest Muslim-majority country - is a significant actor in South-east Asia and an important partner in addressing challenges ranging from maritime security to Islamic extremism," he said yesterday.

"Vietnam, meanwhile, has moved briskly from a US adversary (at the end of the Cold War) to a closer US partner, including in the defence domain."

Mr Mattis said the US wants to work with Indonesia, the maritime fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific, to ensure that the rule of law and freedom of navigation is upheld in the region.

"The maritime fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific area is critical and as we can help in maintaining the maritime domain awareness in the South China Sea, the North Natuna Sea, this is something that we look forward to do," he added.

Mr Mattis was speaking to reporters after a meeting with his Indonesian counterpart Ryamizard.

He also acknowledged Indonesia's efforts in fighting extremism, saying it has "sdone a very good job over the last 10 years", and US support for those efforts will now include Special Forces units that conduct counter-terrorism.

Mr Ryamizard welcomed the offer, saying he looks forward to a full resumption of exchanges between Indonesia's Special Forces unit Kopassus and the US military. The US had banned Kopassus from bilateral military training over allegations of human rights abuses in then-East Timor in 1999 as it prepared for independence.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 24, 2018, with the headline US, Indonesia stepping up cooperation. Subscribe