Monday, 23 Nov 2020

Indonesia, US set to boost defence cooperation after Prabowo Subianto meets Mark Esper

JAKARTA – Indonesia and the United States have agreed to boost defence and security cooperation after a meeting between Indonesian Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto and US Defence Secretary Mark Esper in Washington.

The top defence officials discussed “regional security, bilateral defence priorities, and defence acquisitions” in their meeting last Friday (Oct 16), according to a joint statement released by Indonesia’s Defence Ministry and the US Department of Defence on the same day. They expressed their common intention “to enhance bilateral military-to-military activities and work together on maritime security”.

“Secretary Esper communicated the importance of upholding human rights, the rule of law and professionalisation as the two countries expand their engagement. Minister Subianto expressed the importance of military engagement at all levels, and communicated his appreciation for the United States’ support for Indonesia’s defence modernisation,” the statement said.

But it did not elaborate what kind of support Mr Prabowo had referred to. Defence Ministry spokesman Dahnil Anzar Simanjuntak cannot be reached for comment.

There has been no official announcement about any deal that Indonesia sealed with the US during Mr Prabowo’s five-day visit, which ended on Monday.

The trip was a follow-up to Mr Prabowo’s phone call with his US counterpart on Aug 4, in which, according to a readout by the US Department of Defence, both talked about maritime security, defense acquisitions and military exercises.

Indonesia’s Defence Ministry is trying to modernise its weapon systems, and has shown interest in some US-made ones.

Mr Prabowo, appointed defence minister last year after losing the presidential election twice to Mr Joko Widodo, had earlier met his counterparts from China, Russia and other key arms suppliers – all US adversaries – and discussed Indonesia’s current needs in defence, while also touching on some regional affairs.

The US was expected to renew warnings to Jakarta against major arms purchases from Moscow, and experts warned that purchasing Russian fighter jets could lead to US sanctions under the US Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (Caatsa), Reuters reported.

Mr Prabowo’s visit also came at a time when Washington is setting its sight on South-east Asian partners to contain the greater influence of China in the Indo-Pacific region.

The US has also renewed its interest in the energy-rich South China Sea, where China has overlapping claims with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. Indonesia is not a party in the dispute, but its Natuna Sea borders the waters.

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Among the future cooperation between the US and Indonesia is the restarting of work to recover the remains of American personnel lost in Indonesia during World War II, under a memorandum of intent signed by Mr Prabowo and Dr Esper, the statement said.

“Both leaders expressed sympathies to those affected by the Covid-19 in the United States and Indonesia,” it added.

The US has handed over ventilators and US$12.3 million (S$16.7 million) in Covid-19 relief funding to Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation of nearly 270 million people, where 365,240 have been infected and 12,617 killed by the coronavirus.

Mr Prabowo, a 69-year-old former army’s special forces commander, was previously banned from entering the US for two decades due to his alleged role in past human rights violations, including the 1998 riots after the fall of Indonesia’s strongman Suharto, his former father-in-law.

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Concerns over human rights abuses had also ended the cooperation between the Indonesia and US military.

Human rights advocates had protested Washington’s latest move to grant Mr Prabowo a visa. In a joint letter to US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo dated Oct 13, Amnesty International and other groups had said the decision to lift the travel ban on him is “abrupt, complete reversal of longstanding US foreign policy which has been in place for 20 years”.

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