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Coalition of the willing builds in South China Sea

11:53:00 PM Add Comment

A coalition of the willing is building in the South China Sea as European powers bolster the United States and its Asian allies’ freedom of navigation operations vis-à-vis China in the hotly contested waterway.

While Europe’s military footprint in the area is still modest, the presence of a growing number of like-minded powers in China’s adjacent waters highlights shared concerns about Beijing’s strategic ambitions for the area.

Europe’s entry also arguably gives greater international legitimacy to Washington’s freedom of navigation and overflight operations in the area, maneuvers China has consistently branded as illegal and a violation of its sovereignty.

The coalition is building steam as the US mounts pressure on China’s wide-reaching claims to the sea and its growing use of maritime militia, often disguised as fishing boats, in so-called “grey zone” coercion tactics against smaller claimant nations.

Analysts believe America’s firming deterrence in the maritime region, articulated in a new Indo-Pacific strategy paper released by the Pentagon, is raising the potential for low-level incidents to spiral into clashes that could spark a wider multinational conflict over the sea.

Britain and France’s recent warship maneuvers in the South China Sea, both strongly condemned by Beijing as “illegal”, have made abundantly clear that they would side with the US over China in any conflict scenario in the flashpoint maritime area.

Germany may also soon dip its toe into the sea’s turbulent waters, with reports circulating that high-level officials are considering to send ships to join US-led freedom of navigation operations to the maritime area.

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen did not directly mention the South China Sea during an address to a defense university in Beijing last October, but did say shipping lanes should “remain free and not become the object of power projections.”

The German government denied last week an earlier report that it planned to send a warship through the Taiwan Strait, a move that would follow on France’s recent deployment in which German military personnel were on board as observers.

Germany’s potential entry into the maritime contest, which would likely require redeploying ships currently allocated for Nato operations, would inevitably irk China while further stirring its stated anxieties of Western encirclement.

Australia, India and Japan have all recently cooperated with the US in recent South China Sea maneuvers and freedom of navigation operations, and helped with naval capacity-building of smaller aligned regional states like the Philippines.

US-led multilateral exercises are now increasing in scale and frequency in response to Beijing’s recent militarization of the features it controls. It is not clear if recent Chinese provocations, including the ramming and sinking of a Philippine fishing vessel on June 9 at the sea’s contested Reed Bank, are meant as a warning against naval cooperation with the US.

In January, Britain’s Royal Navy frigate HMS Argyll joined America’s guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell for an unprecedented six-day-long series of joint exercises in the South China Sea staged to promote “regional security and prosperity.”

The two navies “conducted communication drills, division tactics and personnel exchange designed to address common maritime security priorities, enhance interoperability and develop relationships that will benefit both navies for many years to come,” according to an official readout of the exercises.

In late December, the British conducted trilateral anti-submarine exercises with the US and Japan using its HMS Albion amphibious warship near the contested Paracel Islands, maneuvers clearly aimed at China’s burgeoning submarine capabilities.

The exercises came just months after China accused Britain of “provocative action” by sending the Albion on a voyage close to the Paracel Islands, features claimed by both China and Vietnam.

Britain will next deploy its Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier, along with two squadrons of F-35B Lightning II joint strike fighters, to the disputed areas in coming weeks.

London has acknowledged that its rising presence in the sea is complicating its relations with China but there are no signs of backtracking.

In February, UK Finance Minister Philip Hammond admitted in an interview with the BBC, that relations with China have become more “complex” in recent years due to “Chinese concerns about Royal Navy deployments in the South China Sea.”

France, another European power with extensive territorial and maritime interests in the wider Indo-Pacific, has likewise stepped up its presence and moves in the South China Sea.

In April, the French frigate Vendemiaire transited through the Taiwan Straits, a move that prompted China to disinvite Paris from its international naval parade marking the 70 anniversary of the founding of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA-N).

Chinese warships shadowed the French frigate during the operation while Beijing sent “stern representations” for what it described as an “illegal” passage in its claimed waters. French Defense Minister Florence Parly responded in May by saying France will continue to sail in the South China Sea at least twice a year.

Both the British and French argue that such transit operations are routine efforts to preserve freedom of navigation in international waters. It’s still not clear if Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse but comparative naval lightweight, will ultimately join the sea fray.

Unlike other European countries such as France and Britain, which still maintain extensive colonial possessions across the Asia-Pacific, Germany has no direct territorial or maritime interests in the region.

As one senior member of the German Bundestag’s Committee on Foreign Affairs told this reporter in 2018, “our primary geopolitical concern remains to be Moscow and its growing assertiveness in Eastern Europe.”

The official implied that Germany would think twice before getting involved in Asian maritime disputes. To date, Berlin has kept a safe distance from the territorial tiffs, focusing instead on its booming trade and investment relations with China, now its largest trading partner.

Bilateral trade hit $225.7 billion last year, with China importing hefty amounts of German machinery and technology. Berlin has stood its ground in maintaining those trade ties in the wake of the US-China trade war.

At the same time, Germany’s commercial traffic through the South China Sea is the world’s ninth largest, underscoring Berlin’s interests in freedom of navigation in the waterway. Berlin started to take a more vocal stance on the sea disputes as they started to bubble in 2015.

During a two-day visit to Beijing that year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made it clear that Berlin views “territorial dispute in the South China Sea” as a “serious conflict.”

Merkel also said “[w]e wish that the sea trade routes stay free and safe, because they are important for all.” In a jab at Beijing’s resistance to international arbitration of its sea disputes with the Philippines, she said “I am always a bit surprised why in this case multinational courts should not be an option for a solution.”

Perhaps adding insult to injury, Merkel gave as a gift to her Chinese hosts an old map of China drawn by the early 18th century French cartographer Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville which pictorially challenged Beijing’s “historic” claims to Taiwan and much of the South China Sea.


Ex-Foreign Secretary Del Rosario held, questioned at Hong Kong airport

8:24:00 PM Add Comment

MANILA, Philippines — Former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, who filed a case for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court against Chinese President Xi Jinping last March, was held and questioned at the Hong Kong International Airport as he arrived there at 7:40 a.m. today.

‘Still here. Been half hour wait…now in a staff lounge after answering a few questions. Asked to wait,’’ Del Rosario told the Inquirer around 8:30 a.m.

He said he was taken to a ‘small lounge’ and asked to wait.

Hong Kong immigration staff asked him questions like ‘’what is purpose of trip? How long? Where is business meet? Return date.’’

Del Rosario was to attend board and shareholders meetings of First Pacific and was travelling alone. He said two members of the Philippine consulate are with him in the airport staff lounge where he was being questioned.

It was a repeat of what happened to former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales last May 21, when she was barred from entering Hong Kong for being a ‘security threat.’’

Morales was Del Rosario’s co-complainant in the ICC case filed against Xi for depriving Filipino fishermen of their livelihood, aggression and environmental degradation in the West Philippine Sea.

Morales said it was bullying by China and clearly in retaliation for their filing of the ICC case against Xi.

The incident with Del Rosario comes two weeks after a Chinese fishing boat rammed a Filipino fishing vessel in the Recto Bank, leaving 22 fishermen floating in the sea for six hours before they were rescued by a Vietnamese fishing boat.

Philippine officials first strongly denounced the incident, with Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr. filing a diplomatic protest. But the tone changed after President Duterte said it was just a “little maritime incident.”

Before he left for Hong Kong this morning, Del Rosario issued this statement in reaction to China’s call for a joint investigation of the Recto Bank incident: ‘’The plan for a joint probe by the Ph and China is the worst news yet. It redounds to a potential partnership between one party (Ph who is out to seek the truth) against another party (China, the bully) who is out to suppress it. We should really feel sorry for our poor fishermen as the ultimate product of a joint probe  with Beijing is expected to be no more than a  bowl of fruit salad.

South China Sea: Satellite image shows Chinese fighter jets deployed to contested island

8:18:00 PM Add Comment

Hong Kong (CNN)A satellite image obtained by CNN shows China has deployed at least four J-10 fighter jets to the contested Woody Island in the South China Sea, the first known deployment of fighter jets there since 2017.

The image was taken Wednesday and represents the first time J-10s have been seen on Woody or any Chinese-controlled islands in the South China Sea, according to ImageSat International, which supplied the image to CNN.
The deployment comes as tensions remain high in the South China Sea and Chinese President Xi Jinping prepares to meet United States President Donald Trump at the G-20 summit in Japan next week.

Analysts who looked at the satellite photo for CNN said both the placement of the planes out in the open and accompanying equipment is significant and indicates the fighter jets were on the contested island for up to 10 days.
"They want you to notice them. Otherwise they would be parked in the hangars," said Peter Layton, a former Royal Australian Air Force officer and fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute. "What message do they want you to take from them?"
Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the US Pacific Command's Joint Intelligence Center, said the deployment is designed to "demonstrate it is their territory and they can put military aircraft there whenever they want."
"It also makes a statement that they can extend their air power reach over the South China Sea as required or desired," Schuster said.
The J-10 jets have a combat range of about 500 miles (740 kilometers), putting much of the South China Sea and vital shipping lands within reach, Schuster said.
The four planes are not carrying external fuel tanks, the analysts said. That suggests they were to be refueled on the island, so the plan may be to keep them there awhile.

"It could be an early training deployment as part of getting the J-10 squadron operationally ready for an ADIZ (air defense identification zone) declaration," Layton said. "This activity may be the new normal."
China said in 2016 it reserved the right to impose an ADIZ over the South China Sea, which would require aircraft flying over the waters to first notify Beijing. It set up an ADIZ over the East China Sea in 2013, prompting an outcry from Japan and the United States, but the zone has not been fully enforced.
Woody Island, known as Yongxing in China, is the largest of the Paracel chain, also known as the Xisha Islands in China.

The Paracels sit in the north-central portion of the 1.3 million-square-mile South China Sea. They are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan, but have been occupied by China since 1974, when Chinese troops ousted a South Vietnamese garrison.
The past several years have seen Beijing substantially upgrade its facilities on the islands, deploying surface-to-air missiles, building 20 hangars at the airfield, upgrading two harbors and performing substantial land reclamation, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
Woody Island has served as a blueprint for Beijing's more prominent island-building efforts in the Spratly chain to the south, AMTI said in a 2017 report.

The appearance of the J-10s on Woody Island comes just over a year after China sent its H-6K long-range bombers to the island for test flights for the first time.
The PLA claimed that mission was a part of China's aim to achieve a broader regional reach, quicker mobilization, and greater strike capabilities.
"The islands in the South China Sea are China's territory," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said after the bomber flights. "The relevant military activities are normal trainings and other parties shouldn't over-interpret them."
A military expert, Wang Mingliang, was quoted in a Chinese statement as saying the training would hone the Chinese air force's war-preparation skills and its ability to respond to various security threats in the region.
In 2017, a report in China's state-run Global Times, said fighter jets -- J-11s -- were deployed to Woody Island for the first time, with the new hangars able to protect the warplanes from the island's high heat and humidity.
That report said such hangars would be useful on other Chinese islands to greatly enhance Beijing's control over the South China Sea.


Destroyer Visit Puts Japan-Vietnam Military Ties into Focus

7:39:00 PM Add Comment

Last week, two Japanese vessels paid a scheduled visit to Vietnam. While the interaction was just one of a series of activities in the bilateral relationship, it nonetheless spotlighted some of the ongoing activity in the defense relationship in 2019.

As I have observed previously in these pages, while Japan and Vietnam have long maintained a defense component in their wider bilateral relationship, the two countries have been boosting their security ties as part of their so-called extensive strategic partnership over the past few years. Gains have included not just headline items such as periodic maritime security assistance, but significant moves including new naval drills, Japanese port calls, an agreement on coast guard cooperation, and discussions on more defense equipment and defense industrial collaboration.

That has continued on into 2019 as well. Indeed, just last month, Japan’s Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya paid a visit to Vietnam – his first overseas trip since Japan’s official transition to the Reiwa Era – where both sides discussed a range of areas to further defense collaboration and also inked a memorandum of understanding to strengthen defense industry cooperation.

This week, the defense aspect of the Japan-Vietnam defense relationship was in the headlines again with the visit of two Japanese vessels to Vietnam. The helicopter carrier JS Izumo (DDH-183) and destroyer JS Murasame (DD-101) of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) were in Vietnam for a naval engagement which lasted from June 14 to June 18.

Per the official account by Vietnam’s defense ministry, the two vessels began their interaction by anchoring at Cam Ranh International Port in Khanh Hoa province on June 14. The two vessels, which had over 700 crew-members, were commanded by Rear Admiral Hiroshi Egawa, Commander of the JMSDF Escort Flotilla 1.

The four-day visit consisted of several other interactions as well. Among other things, the Japanese troops paid courtesy calls on leaders of the Khanh Hoa provincial People’s Committee, Naval Region 4 Command, and the Vietnam Naval Academy, took part in various exchange activities with units under the Naval Region 4 Command; and also took the opportunity to visit some tourism and cultural sites in the province as well.

Unsurprisingly, no further details were publicly disclosed about other aspects of the visit beyond these general contours. But Vietnam’s defense ministry said that the visit ought to be seen more broadly as contributing to expanding bilateral defense cooperation between the two sides as well as building trust, and mutual understanding between the two navies and militaries as well.


What’s Next for Germany-Vietnam Military Cooperation?

7:36:00 PM Add Comment

Last week, a high-ranking Vietnamese defense delegation paid a scheduled visit to Germany. While the trip was one among many interactions between the two countries, it highlighted some of the future opportunities for collaboration that both sides have been exploring in spite of the past challenges that their ties have encountered in recent years.

Germany and Vietnam began their diplomatic relations in 1975 and elevated their ties to the level of a strategic partnership in 2011, with the intent to make progress on a range of areas in the political, economic, and security domains. Though there have been challenges – including the souring of ties in 2017 following a Vietnam government-linked high-profile kidnapping of a Vietnamese businessmen from Berlin back to Vietnam – both sides have since attempted to reset their ties and make further progress in their relations.

For instance, both sides have been working out the finalization of Germany’s first-ever permanent resident defense attaché to Hanoi, which would be a boost for the military aspect of relations. Both sides have also been looking forward to 2020 as well, which will see a series of notable developments, including the 45th founding anniversary of the Vietnam-Germany diplomatic ties, Vietnam’s chairmanship of ASEAN, and the European Union (EU) presidency by Germany.

Last week, the defense aspect of the relationship was in the headlines again with a Vietnamese delegation’s visit to Germany. Nguyen Chi Vinh, Vietnam’s deputy defense minister, led a high-ranking military delegation to Germany from June 11 to June 15.

The visit included a series of interactions. In terms of meetings, Vinh and the delegation met with German officials including Peter Tauber, the state secretary in the German defense ministry. During that meeting, which occurred on June 13, both sides discussed the state of their defense relationship, the security situations in Europe and Asia, and other regional and global issues of interest.

Both sides also discussed next steps in their defense cooperation. Per the official account of the meeting by Vietnam’s defense ministry, this included the possibility of signing a memorandum of understanding on bilateral defense cooperation, accelerating the establishment of a deputy ministerial-level defense policy dialogue mechanism, and further deepening ongoing collaboration in areas such as in military medicine, personnel training, UN peacekeeping operations, defense industry, and war legacy issues. There was also a reference to Vietnam’s ongoing efforts to become a defense partner of the European Union, which has been under consideration, as I observed a few weeks ago.

Apart from these meetings, there were other aspects of the trip as well. Per Vietnam’s defense ministry, this included meetings with the foreign ministry and a field trip to military facilities, including the Combat Training Center of the German Army (GÜZ) and the Center for International Peace Operations (ZIF) Germany.

The visit of the Vietnamese delegation to Germany was just one of several exchanges between the two sides. But as both sides look ahead to what is set to be an active 2020 for them individually as well for bilateral ties, such interactions will be important to watch to get a sense for how the rhetoric between the two sides is translating into reality.


Vietnam has a new partner in its old rivalry with China – the US

11:31:00 PM Add Comment

When Dang Duc Toai completed the Aviation Leadership Programme at Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi last month, he became a trailblazer among pilots from his native Vietnam.
Dang, a captain in the Vietnam People’s Air Force, was the first of his countrymen to graduate from the programme, through which the United States Air Force provides 52 weeks of flight training to pilots from US partner and developing countries.
Lieutenant General Steve Kwast, commander of air education and training command in Columbus, hailed Dang’s graduation on May 31 as the fruit of a partnership between the US and Vietnam that “helps ensure peace and stability in the region and in the world”.
The milestone was just the latest example of deepening military cooperation between Washington and Hanoi – once bitter enemies who are increasingly united in their mutual suspicion of China’s rising clout in the region, particularly in the South China Sea.

“A better relationship with the US in security and military aspects is essential for Vietnam to hedge against any possible aggression from China,” said Viet Phuong Nguyen, a research fellow at the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs in Massachusetts.
In recent years, Vietnam has emerged as one of the loudest objectors to Beijing’s claims to most of the contested South China Sea – where Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei also have competing claims – by regularly protesting Chinese moves around the disputed Spratly and Paracel Islands.

In March, Hanoi lodged a protest with Beijing after a Vietnamese fishing vessel crashed and sank after it was chased by a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel in disputed waters. Months earlier, Hanoi had taken Beijing to task for installing weather stations and landing military aircraft on the Spratly Islands.
In 2014, the deployment of an oil rig in Vietnamese-claimed waters by a Chinese state-owned company sparked weeks of violent riots across the Southeast Asian country.

Memories of historical subjugation and war with China remain raw in Vietnam. In a 2017 survey by Pew, only 10 per cent of Vietnamese said they had a favourable view of China, with which Vietnam fought a series of border conflicts before normalising ties in 1991. In the same survey, 84 per cent of respondents had a positive view of the US.
Hanoi’s growing anxieties about Chinese influence in its backyard have given it common cause with Washington’s stated agenda of ensuring the South China Sea – through which more than US$3 trillion worth of cargo passes each year – remains “free and open”.

An official at Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Hanoi saw cooperation with Washington as necessary in the context of Beijing’s growing military clout.
“The cooperation with US is like a balance helping Vietnam to have another choice to protect its rights and sovereignty, as well as its political position in international forums, especially on the issue of South China Sea conflict,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

However, Vietnam is still economically dependent on China, its largest trading partner, which accounts for one-fifth of the Southeast Asian nation’s trade.
China was also the fifth-largest source of foreign direct investment in Vietnam in 2018, with total registered capital amounting to US$2.4 billion, up from US$700 million in 2011, according to the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

Zhang Baohui, a political-science professor at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said Vietnam was unlikely to join the ranks of Washington’s closest partners in Asia due its reliance on its dominant neighbour.
“The reason is that while Vietnam has concerns for China, it also wants to maintain decent relations with Beijing,” Zhang said. “China is after all a rising superpower and can affect Vietnam’s interests, both economic and security, profoundly. So Vietnam will tread carefully for its relations with both Beijing and Washington.”

This economic relationship does not seem to dissuade the Trump administration, which earlier this month announced the sale of a number of surveillance drones to Vietnam, weeks after approving the sale of six patrol boats for the country’s coastguard – moves widely seen as aimed at checking Chinese influence in the South China Sea.
In 2017, the USS Carl Vinson visited the coastal Vietnamese city of Da Nang in the first stopover by a US aircraft carrier since the Vietnam war, which ended in 1975. In April, a senior US defence official said Washington hoped to arrange another aircraft carrier visit this year and make such stopovers a regular occurrence in the future.

Shortly before US President Donald Trump’s election, former president Barack Obama announced an end to a decade-long arms embargo on Vietnam, casting it as a “lingering vestige of the cold war”.
“Trump has definitely … prioritised Vietnam as a country that will help with the broader Indo-Pacific strategy, keeping the Indo-Pacific free and open, as they say, because Vietnam has the most territorial disputes of any country with China in the South China Sea,” said Derek Grossman, a senior defence analyst at the RAND Corporation. “There’s a very strong China element to it, no doubt, regardless of what anyone says.”

Nevertheless, non-aligned Vietnam’s foreign policy doctrine places heavy constraints on deeper defence ties, precluding a formal alliance such as the ones Washington maintains with the Philippines, South Korea and Japan. Hanoi’s “three noes” defence policy forbids its involvement in military alliances, aligning with one country against another, or hosting foreign military bases on Vietnamese soil.
“China thus does not feel very concerned by developments in Vietnam-US relations,” said Zhang from Lingnan University. “It understands that there is a limit in that relationship.”
How Trump has emboldened Asia’s strongmen leaders
Nguyen of the Belfer Centre said the natural choice for Hanoi was to balance its relations with major powers.
“Vietnam should not be content with better military cooperation with the US, it should strive for a true hedging strategy and balance its relations with the major players in the region,” he said.


Indonesia’s Kopassus Commandos to Train Again with US Military

11:10:00 PM Add Comment

The elite Indonesian army unit Kopassus will train again with the American military, the Southeast Asian nation’s defense chief said Thursday, in the strongest sign that Washington has agreed to improve ties with the special forces group accused of past human rights abuses.

Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu made the announcement after meeting in Jakarta on Thursday with acting U.S. counterpart Patrick Shanahan, during which the two agreed to boost bilateral military cooperation, including on counterterrorism and maritime security.

“Enhancing cooperation will be in the form of dialogue forums, visits by high-ranking military officers, more TNI [Indonesian military] cadets attending education in the U.S., and training for rangers and special forces,” Ryamizard told reporters.

In a joint statement, the two sides affirmed support for normalized relations with Kopassus, which is short for “Special Forces Command” in Indonesian. A joint exercise was expected to take place in 2020, it said.

“Both ministries affirm support for the expansion in our army to army exercise next year, and by normalizing the Army special forces relationship beginning in 2020 with a Joined Combined Exercise Training with KOPASSUS,” the statement said.

A Pentagon spokesman did not immediately respond to a BenarNews email seeking details on the joint training exercises. But Lt. Col. Dave Eastburn, a U.S. Defense Department spokesman, told Reuters that the training program was still in its initial stages and would likely be for up to six weeks.

Shanahan’s predecessor, James Mattis, last year pushed for expanding training for Indonesian military units involved in counter-terrorism, including Kopassus, which gained notoriety after its members were accused of rights abuses during the 1990s in East Timor, when it was occupied by Indonesia.

Kopassus personnel have also been accused of committing atrocities in hotspots in Indonesia, including Aceh province on Sumatra island and Papua, the country’s easternmost region.

In 2010, Washington lifted a more than a decade-long ban on military assistance to Kopassus, arguing that the unit had undergone sufficient reform following the fall of authoritarian ruler Suharto in 1998.

Last year, Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights, known as Komnas HAM, said Kopassus members were involved in rape, killings, enforced disappearances and torture between 1989 and 1998, describing those accusations as crimes against humanity.

“The crimes were borne out of the policy to impose a military emergency in Aceh at that time,” Komnas HAM team member Mohammad Choirul Anam told a news conference in Jakarta last September.

“We have enough preliminary evidence that crimes against humanity, such as rape and other forms of sexual violence, murder, deprivation of freedom, forced imprisonment and forced disappearances,” he said.

The U.S. Congress bans training of foreign military units believed to have involved in human rights abuses under a law sponsored by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.).

Congress began implementing the so-called Leahy Laws in 1998, cutting ties with Kopassus the following year over allegations that its forces had killed civilians and committed rights abuses in East Timor as well Aceh and West Papua provinces.

The laws attach human rights conditions to congressional appropriations of U.S. military aid to foreign countries.

In Jakarta on Thursday, Shanahan told reporters that he and Ryamizard had discussed growing “our capacity and our level of cooperation.”

“The first is expanding, increasing our complex training exercises,” the acting American defense secretary said. “There are many things that we share in common in terms of threats – or I will consider opportunities – our ability to work in counter-terrorism, our ability to work on maritime domain awareness.”

Last year, as Mattis was preparing for his Jakarta visit, Sen. Leahy described Kopassus as a “criminal enterprise” under Suharto, and said it was unclear whether the elite unit had completely transformed.

“The question Secretary Mattis needs to answer is whether the Indonesian government has punished the Kopassus officers who ordered and covered up those horrific crimes, and whether members of Kopassus today are accountable to the rule of law,” the senator told reporters at the time.

Tackling regional threats

On Thursday, the two countries also agreed to tackle threats to security in the Asia-Pacific region, including those posed by returning nationals who fought alongside Islamic State (IS) fighters in Syria and Iraq, the Indonesian defense chief said.

IS-linked militants from Indonesia and the Philippines had been implicated in recent terrorist attacks in both countries, Ryamizard said.

“We must also pay attention to Rohingya refugees. They must be … humanized, otherwise, terrorists will be waiting in the wings to persuade them to join their ranks,” Ryamizard said.

Shanahan was in Indonesia on the first leg of an Asian tour, which will take him to Singapore, where he is scheduled to speak at the Shangri-La Dialogue regional security and defense forum.

Ryamizard said he would attend the forum and talk about maintaining stability and resilience in the face of threats in Southeast Asia.

The region will be stronger and more stable if the countries with combined populations of 560 million people are united, with the support of the United States and partners including Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and Russia, Ryamizard said.

Concerns that ex-IS militants returning from Syria would become leaders of independent terrorist cells not affiliated with pro-IS militant groups in Indonesia have not yet become a reality but remains something to worry about, according to a recent report by a Jakarta-based think-tank.

“At present, the biggest threat comes from IS supporters who have never left, not from those who returned,” Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), said in a report published last month.

Ryamizard also said the U.S. had an interest in making the South China Sea accessible to all.

“Indonesia understands that it must maintain peace and cooperation between countries such as joint patrols so that all countries can go through (the South China Sea),” Ryamizard said.

In December, the Indonesian military inaugurated a military unit in the Natuna islands near the South China Sea.

Indonesian navy patrols have clashed with Chinese fishing boats in waters off Natuna in recent years, as the nation has increased a crackdown on illegal fishing in the maritime region and accused the Chinese of fishing in the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

China responded by calling the waters traditional fishing grounds. Tensions between China and its neighbors have risen as the superpower has sought to assert its control of the South China Sea in the face of competing territorial claims from countries in the region.

China claims most of the sea as its own, while Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei have overlapping claims to territories.