Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto is scheduled to visit the United States next week at the invitation of his U.S. counterpart Mike Esper, his spokesman said Thursday.
The visit would be Prabowo's first in two decades after he was reportedly twice denied entry to the United States due to concerns over his alleged involvement in past human rights abuses.
Prabowo is scheduled to visit the U.S. Oct. 15-19, Dahnil Anzar Simanjuntak, the minister’s spokesman said Thursday in a statement. "This visit will be an opportunity to continue detailed discussions related to bilateral cooperation in the defense sector," Dahnil said.
Prabowo was included in a blanket ban on the Indonesian Army’s Special Forces (Kopassus) for alleged human rights violations in East Timor when the territory was under Indonesian rule, according to The Jakarta Post. He is a former commander of Kopassus.
Citing a source familiar with the issue. U.S. media outlet Politico reported on Tuesday that the U.S. State Department had decided to grant a visa to Prabowo this time around. BenarNews' calls to the U.S. State Department and Department of Defense were not immediately returned.
Analysts told BenarNews that the U.S. move may be aimed at garnering Indonesia’s support on the South China Sea issue, amid escalating tensions between Washington and Beijing on the disputed waterway.
Washington halted all contacts with Kopassus in 1999 over allegations that its forces had killed civilians and committed rights abuses not just in East Timor, but also in the provinces of Aceh and Papua. That ban was lifted in 2010.
However, when the U.S. denied the former Kopassus commander a visa in 2000, officials didn’t explain their reason for the refusal, reported The New York Times in 2014.
Two years before that, in 1998, Prabowo was discharged by the army for his alleged role in the kidnapping of political activists, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Meanwhile, Reuters reported that Prabowo told the news agency in 2012 that he was refused a visa even that year.
News of Prabowo’s travel to the United States comes a little over a month after he and U.S. Secretary of Defense Esper spoke over the phone and discussed “U.S. and Indonesian military cooperation in the age of COVID-19,” according to an account of the conversation issued by the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta on Aug. 4.
“Both the Secretary and Minister Prabowo conveyed their desire to meet in-person soon,” said the readout.
Prabowo would be visiting the U.S. amid troubled times in Indonesia.
Hundreds of people had been protesting for three days, as of Thursday, against a newly adopted jobs creation law passed Monday, over concerns that it curtails workers’ rights.
On Thursday, protesters allegedly vandalized and set fire to bus stops and a police post in the Indonesian capital Jakarta. A day earlier, police arrested at least 200 people on suspicion of trying to stir unrest, said Yusri Yunus, the spokesman of police in the Indonesian capital, on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, two Indonesian security analysts told BenarNews on Thursday that the U.S. needs Indonesia on its side on the South China Sea issue.
In addition to China, six other Asian governments have territorial claims or maritime boundaries in the South China Sea that overlap with the sweeping claims of China. They are Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
While Indonesia does not regard itself as party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of that sea overlapping Indonesia's exclusive economic zone.
As tensions have escalated between China and the U.S. in recent months, Washington has made concerted efforts to court Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries for their support in denying Beijing’s claims to the waterway.
Last month, 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, however, also said that the dispute must be settled by following international law, including the United Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, which China denounces.
Mere days after Retno’s comment, Indonesia detected the presence of a Chinese coast guard ship in its exclusive economic zone off the Natuna Islands.
In its protest to Beijing about the ship, Indonesia reiterated that it rejects China’s so-called Nine-Dash Line, which Beijing uses to demarcate its claims in the South China Sea, and that it has no overlapping claims with Beijing in its exclusive economic zone.
M. Riefki Muna, a researcher in international security at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), told BenarNews that the U.S. defense secretary’s invite to Prabowo highlights Indonesia’s geopolitical significance.
"Given the competition between the U.S. and China, especially tensions in the South China Sea, Indonesia's geographical position is becoming increasingly important to the U.S.,” he said.
“As the largest country geographically and in terms of population in Southeast Asia, Indonesia plays a crucial role in the region.”
Yohannes Sulaiman, a defense and security expert from General Achmad Yani (Unjani) University, concurred.
He told BenarNews that given the friction between the U.S. and China, it was inevitable that Washington would want to deal with Prabowo, who is, after all, defense minister.
"Like it or not, sooner or later the blacklist had to be lifted, now that Prabowo is defense minister. Indonesia is an important country, our position is very strategic," said Sulaiman.
He also said that the U.S. may be worried that Indonesia is getting “too cozy with China.”
Sulaiman was referring to the fact that despite Indonesia’s and China’s differences over the South China Sea, Prabowo has been more in contact with his Chinese counterpart than with his U.S. one.
Prabowo has met China’s Wei Fenghe three times since being named Indonesia’s defence minister in October 2019. The latest meeting between the two ministers was last month, when Wei visited Jakarta to discuss tensions in the South China Sea ahead of a series of ASEAN ministerial meetings.
One international relations expert, Padjajaran University’s Teuku Rezasyah, sounded a cautionary note for Prabowo, saying he should make sure he will be allowed into the U.S. before setting off for the airport.
Rezasyah was referring to a 2017 incident when then-armed forces commander Gatot Nurmantyo was told by airline staff, just as he was checking in for a trip to Washington, that U.S. Customs and Border Protection had blocked his entry.
"Don't let another cancellation happen, like it happened with Gatot Nurmantyo who was blocked from flying to the U.S.,” Rezasyah told BenarNews.
Gatot was initially stopped from boarding a flight due to “security protocols” but the issue was quickly resolved, U.S. officials said at the time. The Indonesian military chief, who declined to travel, had been invited to a conference by the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.