JAKARTA - The United States wants to work with Indonesia, as the maritime fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific, to ensure that the rule of law and freedom of navigation is upheld in the region, said US Defence Secretary James Mattis in Jakarta on Tuesday (Jan 23).
"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," said Mr Mattis.
The former commander of the US Central Command was speaking to reporters in Jakarta after a meeting with his Indonesian counterpart Ryamizard Ryacudu, a fellow four-star general.
He added that Asean, which Indonesia is a founding member of, remains central to peace in the region and the US shares its desire for all nations to prosper "regardless of the size of the nations".
Mr Mattis also acknowledged Indonesia's efforts in fighting extremism, saying the country has "done a very good job (on counter-terrorism) over the last ten years. We know we can learn a lot from them and we must work together on this larger problem".
He said that US support for those efforts will now include Special Forces units that conduct counter-terrorism.
Mr Mattis is in Jakarta as part of a week-long tour of South-east Asia, which also includes a stop in Vietnam, just days ahead of the 50th aniversary of the launch of the Tet Offensive - one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War - in January 1968.
He told reporters earlier on the flight from Washington to Jakarta, that martime security cooperation in view of China's territorial claims in the South China Sea, will be among the issues he hopes to discuss in Hanoi.
"I need to hear more about how they see things developing as they maintain sovereignty over their territorial waters and economic zone that they maintain oversight of," he said.
"Obviously, we want to know what level of engagement they want with us. Is it professional military education, is it joint training? I want to sit down and just talk with them, get a better sense of the pragmatic steps that we can take as we move the relationship forward into one of trust and collaboration."
His visit to South-east Asia is in line with a key focus of a broad national security strategy unveiled last Friday in Washington which centres on building partnerships and strengthening alliances.
Indonesia has clashed with China over fishing rights around the Natuna Islands, detaining Chinese fishermen and expanding its military presence in the area in recent years.
In July, Indonesia renamed the northern reaches of its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea as the North Natuna Sea, a move seen as a significant act of resistance to China's territorial ambitions in the South China Sea.
Vietnam on the other hand has emerged as one of the most vocal opponents of China's expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea, where more than US$3 trillion (S$4 trillion) in cargo passes every year, reported Reuters.
Mr Ryamizard said apart from security in the South China Sea, he and Mr Mattis also discussed North Korea, the Rohingya crisis, and militants in southern Philippines with ties to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
He also welcomed Mr Mattis’ offer of assistance in counter-terrorism, saying: “America’s tools are much more sophisticated, we need the help.”