February 25, 2008 By Kristin Roberts, Reuters
JAKARTA--U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates landed in Jakarta on Monday, aiming to strengthen military ties with a country the Pentagon sees as a regional leader and secular model for Muslim states.
Gates will meet with Indonesia's president and defense minister to assess their equipment and military training needs. They also will discuss, but not sign, a statement of principles on defense cooperation similar to agreements Indonesia has with China and Australia, said U.S. officials traveling with Gates.
"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 ahead of the visit.
Gates' focus on offering support for Indonesia's ongoing defense 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 September 11, 2001, attacks.
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 struggled to combat 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 September 11, relegated Indonesia for years into the group of countries of concern among security experts.
U.S. defense officials, however, 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. defense official with Gates.
They say Indonesian security has dealt effectively with its Islamic militant threat and that Indonesia, with proper U.S. support, military training and equipment assistance, could serve as a "foundation" for southeast Asian security.
"The secretary has no difficulty seeing that Indonesia is not just the biggest southeast Asian country but it is the benchmark or foundation country for southeast Asian stability," another defense official said.
The threat from Islamic militants, however, remains real for Indonesia, according to security experts. U.S. officials say they continue to see ties between Jemaah Islamiah and al Qaeda.
Gates said those contacts were there but that he had seen no evidence in recent months that Jemaah Islamiah had strengthened.
"I don't have any sense from the last few weeks or months that there's been a significant increase in those contacts or a particular strengthening of the JI," he said.