JAKARTA, Indonesia – The United States needs to let other countries determine how best they want to fight terrorism to counter perceptions that the U.S. is overbearing, Indonesia's defense minister lectured visiting Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld Tuesday.
In turn, Rumsfeld talked to Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono and Indonesia President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono about the need for Indonesia to continue efforts to ensure that human rights abuses are no longer a problem with its military.
Rumsfeld, wrapping up a five-day, three-nation tour in Southeast Asia, covered a wide range of issues during talks with leaders of the world's largest Muslim-majority nation.
In addition to improved maritime security in the strategically important Malacca Straits and U.S. plans for military equipment sales to Indonesia, the leaders also discussed broader programs to curb the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Sudarsono said that "perhaps we can agree on a limited framework of cooperation" on proliferation security initiatives. His country, he said, is reluctant to move toward a more multilateral permanent structure.
After more than seven years of estrangement, the United States is working to improve its military relationship with Indonesia in the face of growing disenchantment over the Iraq war among the people in this Muslim nation.
"As the largest Muslim country, we are very aware of the perception ... that the United States is overbearing, over-present and overwhelming in every sector of life in many nations and cultures," said Sudarsono, seen as a close U.S. ally in the war on terror.
Otherwise, he said, the United States risked angering "many groups across the world" who already feel threatened by the country's "powerful military and its powerful economy." There is a feeling, he said, that "the sun never sets on the back of an American GI."
Rumsfeld, the latest in a string of U.S. officials who have visited Jakarta, defended U.S. policy, saying "I never have indicated to any country that they should do something they were uncomfortable doing."
In a commentary appearing in Tuesday's The Wall Street Journal Asia, he said Washington and its allies in the region needed to decide "whether to openly combat the messages of hate, intolerance, and incitement — that can, in some cases, gain traction — or to try to placate and accommodate those whose vision of the future deems that it is acceptable, even desirable, to kill innocent men, women and children to promote their goals."
Rumsfeld also told reporters in Jakarta that recently restored military ties with Indonesia had already benefited both countries — pointing to the help U.S. troops gave survivors of the 2004 tsunami that ravaged Aceh province and last month's powerful earthquake in Yogyakarta.
"We need to be able to work together and we need to be able to communicate with and understand each other when a disaster of that type happens," he said.
Washington cut all military ties with Indonesia in 1999 after its army and militia proxies devastated East Timor during its break from Jakarta.
Over the years the U.S. restored partial relations and it lifted a military embargo in November altogether, citing Indonesia's cooperation in fighting terrorism.
The nation has arrested at least 200 suspected Islamic radicals in the past few years, and suffered a string of bomb attacks blamed on the al-Qaida-linked terror group Jemaah Islamiyah, including the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings that together killed 222 people.
The U.S. is particularly concerned about security in the Malacca Straits. The waterway, straddling Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, has long been a hotbed of piracy. The straits links the Indian and Pacific Oceans and carries half the world's oil and a third of its commerce and Washington has expressed concern that terrorists could target the 50,000 tankers and ships plying the route yearly.