From: By LOLITA C. BALDOR, AP
JAKARTA, Indonesia (Map, News) - The United States is working to broaden its ties with Indonesia as the island nation emerges as a leader in the Asia-Pacific region, U.S. officials said Monday as Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived here.
"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 told reporters Sunday as he prepared to travel from Australia to Jakarta.
After 13 years of estrangement, the United States has been trying to improve military relations with Indonesia, which can play a key role in a region dominated by worries about North Korea's nuclear ambitions and China's military buildup.
Senior defense officials traveling with Gates said Monday that lingering suspicions of Indonesia's connections to terrorist networks do not reflect significant changes in recent years.
This is not, said one senior official, "your father's Indonesia" that was known primarily for its Jemaah Islamiyah terror network, military dominance in government affairs and human rights abuses.
Instead, there will be efforts to allay Jakarta's concerns that the U.S. could again pull back, risking future military sales.
And they said Gates is looking to acknowledge Indonesia's leadership role in the region, and discuss possible increased military sales to Jakarta. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in advance of Gates' meetings with Indonesian Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Asked about terror links, Gates acknowledged that Indonesia-based terrorists may maintain their contacts with al-Qaida.
"I assume that those contacts have been maintained but 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, referring to the Jemaah Islamiyah network.
Just last week, an Indonesian terror suspect - a member of the JI - and two Filipinos were arrested during a raid on their hideout in the southern Philippines.
The U.S. cut all military ties with Indonesia in 1992, after its army and militia proxies devastated East Timor during its break from Jakarta.
In 2005, the U.S. began to aggressively rebuild relations, but just a year later, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld got a somewhat frosty welcome to Jakarta. During Rumsfeld's visit, Sudarsono lectured him, saying the U.S. needs to counter perceptions that it is overbearing and let other countries decide how best they should fight terrorism within their own borders.
One topic of Gates' talks will be Indonesia's efforts to modernize its military, including its desire to purchase military airplanes. Jakarta's fleet of 22 C-130 aircraft is aging and in need of refurbishment, and government officials have long sought to purchase replacement parts.
During the 13-year break between the two countries, the U.S. was prohibited from such sales, but those restrictions were lifted in late 2005.
Gates is visiting five countries during an eight-day tour, and will make stops later this week in India and Turkey.
Feb 25, 2008 12:27 AM