Updated at 6:55 a.m. ET on 2020-10-18
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper emphasized human rights and the rule of law in a meeting Friday with Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, as the two discussed enhancing bilateral military ties and cooperation on maritime security, the Pentagon said.
Prabowo’s trip to the U.S. on Esper’s invitation comes after Washington lifted a nearly two-decade ban on the former military official, who has been accused of human rights abuses in the past – and as it courts Southeast Asian countries, amid rising tensions with China in the region.
“Secretary Esper communicated the importance of upholding human rights, the rule of law, and professionalization as the two countries expand their engagement,” the U.S. Defense Department said in a statement about the meeting released Saturday.
The two discussed defense acquisitions, and Prabowo stated his “appreciation for the United States’ support for Indonesia’s defense modernization,” the statement said.
“Both leaders shared their desire to enhance bilateral military-to-military activities and work together on maritime security,” it said.
The officials also signed a memorandum of intent to resume efforts to recover the remains of U.S. personnel lost in Indonesia during World War II, the statement said.
Prabowo and Esper previously met in November 2019 at a gathering of Southeast Asian defense chiefs. During an August phone call, they expressed a desire to meet again in person.
‘A common interest’
As Prabowo arrived in the United States on Thursday, officials sought to allay criticism of his five-day visit from human rights groups and lawmakers.
“The U.S. government and the Department of Defense place great importance on our partnership with Indonesia, with which we share democratic values, strong economic and people-to-people ties, and a common interest in a rules-based order in Southeast Asia,” Jonathan Hoffman, assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, said in a statement sent to BenarNews on Thursday.
The U.S. defense secretary always raises human rights and professionalism with his counterparts around the world, Hoffman said. “These are key principles on which our bilateral defense relationships are built with any partner. Indonesia is no different,” the statement said.
Southeast Asia is the region most impacted by China’s assertion of sweeping territorial claims and militarization of disputed land features in South China Sea. Washington recently toughened its language on the matter, calling China’s claims illegal and accusing Beijing of “bullying behavior” in the region.
China, for its part, has called on Southeast Asian countries to resist “interference” from the United States in territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Six Asian governments – Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam – have territorial claims or maritime boundaries in the South China Sea that overlap with China’s.
While Indonesia does not regard itself as a party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of the sea that overlap Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.
In recent years, Indonesia has on multiple occasions detected Chinese fishing or coast guard ships in its exclusive economic zone off the Natuna Islands in the South China Sea.
In its latest protest over one such incursion, Jakarta reiterated that it rejected China’s so-called Nine-Dash Line, which Beijing has used to demarcate its claims in the South China Sea.
Earlier, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said the Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries did not want to “get caught up in the rivalry between major powers,” in an apparent reference to tensions between China and the United States.
Retno also said the dispute must be settled by following international law, including the United Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, which China denounces.
Prabowo’s visit comes 10 years after the U.S. lifted a ban on the Indonesian army’s special forces (Kopassus), which he commanded decades ago.
In August 1998, Prabowo was discharged from the Indonesian Army for his alleged role in the kidnapping of political activists during a student uprising that helped end the decades-long rule of his then-father-in-law, Suharto, The Wall Street Journal reported.
In 1999, Washington halted all contacts with Kopassus over alleged rights abuses committed in the Aceh and Papua regions and when Indonesia occupied neighboring East Timor. That ban was lifted in 2010.
Prabowo has denied committing or being party to any human rights violations. In a booklet published during his 2019 presidential campaign, he said if the allegations against him were true, he wouldn’t have been allowed to travel, the Financial Times newspaper reported.
When Washington denied the former Kopassus commander a visa in 2000, officials did not explain their reason for the refusal, according to The New York Times in 2014. Meanwhile, Reuters reported that Prabowo said in 2012 that he was denied a visa that year.
U.S. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, the author of a law that bans the training of foreign military units believed to have been involved in human rights abuses, criticized Washington’s invitation to Prabowo.
The former Indonesian special forces commander “has been credibly implicated in gross violations of human rights, including kidnapping, torture, and disappearances, and under our law he is ineligible to enter this country,” the senator said in a statement this week.
“The president and secretary of state have shown once again that for them ‘law and order’ is an empty slogan that ignores the imperative of justice.”
Earlier this week in a joint statement, Amnesty International and several Indonesian human rights groups also expressed “grave concerns” over the decision by President Donald Trump’s administration to grant a visa to Prabowo.
“The State Department’s recent decision to lift the ban on Prabowo Subianto is an abrupt, complete reversal of longstanding U.S. foreign policy which has been in place for 20 years,” the groups said in a joint statement.
CORRECTION: The photo caption in an earlier version of this report contained wrong information. Prabowo Subianto was not the defense minister at the time the photo was taken.