The United States has pledged to help Indonesia and five other Southeast Asian nations boost regional security by supporting a multilateral intelligence-sharing initiative dubbed “Our Eyes,” Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu said Tuesday.
Indonesia had proposed the “mini-Interpol” in October at the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting in the Philippines, shortly after that country defeated Islamic State-linked militants who occupied the southern Philippine city of Marawi for five months. Fleeing combatants could seek refuge in other countries, Ryamizard warned at the time.
“I’ve already formed Our Eyes, to see exactly what their activities are. America will help with sophisticated tools, so hopefully they will be quickly detected. Cooperation is how we eliminate terrorism,” Ryamizard said at a short press conference with visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at the Defense Ministry in Jakarta.
The initiative will be launched with participating countries – Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – on Jan. 25 in Bali, according to Maj. Gen. Hartind Asrin, the director general for defense strategy.
“This is a direct communication channel between defense ministers,” Hartind told BenarNews.
‘Maritime domain awareness’
Mattis’ Asia visit followed his unveiling late last week of the U.S. national defense strategy, the first time the new U.S. administration had spelled out its security priorities.
The strategy places renewed emphasis on balancing the influence of other powers such as China, and calls for an expansion of Indo-Pacific alliances and partnerships.
Mattis said the Indonesian and U.S. militaries should keep working together to ensure freedom of navigation and respect for international law – a reference to China’s expansionist moves in the South China Sea, through which a large portion of the world’s maritime freight traffic passes.
“These are all matters of interest to all nations, and certainly Indonesia at the fulcrum of the Indo Pacific area is critical, and if we can help in any maritime domain awareness in the South China Sea and the North Natuna Sea, this is something that we look forward to doing,” Mattis said.
Indonesia has beefed up security around its Natuna Islands archipelago, located at the south end of the South China Sea, and renamed those waters the North Natuna Sea, provoking protests from Beijing, which claims it has overlapping claims to those waters.
Mattis also offered U.S. support in realizing President Joko Widodo’s vision of Indonesia as a regional maritime power.
“We see that as a healthy and a very, very critical part of ensuring that our words are more than just words about wanting peace, but we actually work for peace in this region," he said.
North Korea, Rohingya crisis
The two defense chiefs also discussed other regional security concerns, such as the Rohingya refugees forced to flee to Bangladesh over the past five months, due to a violent crackdown by Myanmar’s military following attacks by Rohingya insurgents in Rakhine state.
This population could become vulnerable to terrorist ideologies if they felt that no country would accept them, Ryamizard said.
Mattis, for his part, said the suffering of the Rohingya went beyond what had been portrayed in the media.
“This is a tragedy that’s worse than anything that CNN or BBC has been able to portray about what has happened to these people,” Mattis told reporters, according to Reuters.
“And the United States has been engaged vigorously in the diplomatic realm trying to resolve this, engaged with humanitarian aid, a lot of money going into humanitarian aid,” he said.
The two defense ministers also discussed North Korea, Ryamizard said. “We shouldn’t provoke, but we invite the U.N. to pressure North Korea to implement international law,” he said.
U.S. diplomats have lobbied countries in the region to downgrade ties with North Korea in the wake of an escalation of North Korean missile tests over the past year. All 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations maintain relations with North Korea, and Pyongyang is also a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).
Washington also cited the assassination of the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Malaysia when it put Pyongyang back on a list of state sponsors of terrorism in November.