JAKARTA (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates promised on Monday to help Indonesia improve its defence capabilities and equipment as the Pentagon tries to strengthen ties with a country it views as a regional leader and secular model for Muslim states.
Gates, after meetings with Indonesia’s president and defence minister, said Washington was prepared to offer support and training for ongoing military reforms in Indonesia and help the Asian state update its fleet of military transport aircraft.
Indonesian Defence Minister Juwono Sudarsono said they also discussed the purchase of F-16 fighter jets and that Indonesia planned to order six new fighters and refurbish four others.
“There is a positive response from the Pentagon” on Indonesia’s request to purchase F-16s, Sudarsono told reporters after the meetings.
Gates’ focus on support for Indonesia’s defence and national security reforms reflects the Pentagon’s desire to broaden the relationship and move beyond Washington’s prior focus on Indonesia as a potential terrorist flashpoint after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
It also comes as Russia and China try to forge closer military ties with Indonesia, whose strategic location along critical maritime routes gives it a significant role in maritime security, trade and counter-smuggling activities.
“Indonesia is a huge Islamic country, democratic, secular, and I think strengthening our relationship with Indonesia is very important, not just in a regional context but I think in terms of the role that Indonesia may be able to play more broadly,” Gates said.
“Indonesia is a regional power with global reach, and we think that’s a good thing,” he said.
Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country. But it is considered by experts inside the Pentagon as strongly secular.
Still, Indonesia has faced Islamic militant groups, particularly Jemaah Islamiah, a regional militant network blamed for a series of bombings in Indonesia and linked to the 2002 Bali bombings.
Those attacks, coupled with the intense focus by Washington on counter-terrorism after Sept. 11, relegated Indonesia for years into the group of countries of concern among security experts.
U.S. defence officials now argue Indonesia must be viewed more broadly.
“To see this as a single-issue relationship is to completely miss the point of Indonesia’s place, not just in U.S. relations but also in southeast Asia,” said one U.S. defence official with Gates.
While U.S. officials say Indonesian security has dealt effectively with its Islamic militant threat, Gates said countries in the region needed to work together to fight those groups.
“We believe that the nations of the region must move in a more multilateral direction in order to deal with the most pressing threats in this era,” he said in a speech to the Indonesian Council on World Affairs.
The threat from Islamic militants remains real for Indonesia, according to security experts. U.S. officials say they continue to see ties between Jemaah Islamiah and al Qaeda.
Additional reporting by Muklis Ali