JAKARTA, Indonesia – Defense Secretary Robert Gates vowed Monday to help Indonesia reform its military, saying the U.S. was ready to help provide airlift and other maritime capabilities the country needs.
And in what appeared to be a response to previous Indonesian criticism that the United States can be overbearing in its foreign and military policies, Gates said the U.S. can play a supportive role as countries like Indonesia map out their own futures.
"From time to time, we have strayed from our ideals and we have been arrogant in dealing with others," Gates said in a speech to the Indonesian Council on World Affairs. "In the end, we have always realized that our own democracy's strength ultimately depends on the strength and independence of other democracies around the world — including new ones such as Indonesia."
He emphasized America's ongoing commitment to the region, but also said nations in the area must also work together.
"Countries have sometimes found it hard to work with us, or with each other," Gates said. "But we believe that the nations of the region must move in a more multilateral direction in order to deal with the most pressing threats in this era."
During a press conference earlier in the day with Indonesia Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono, Gates said they discussed how the U.S. "can contribute to ongoing efforts to reform Indonesian military and develop its capabilities especially in the airlift and maritime domains. Whether by training or by providing equipment, the United States stands ready to assist in whatever way we can."
And while Indonesia has had talks with other countries — including Russia — to secure military equipment, Sudarsono said he has no problem engaging with the United States to buy additional C-130 airlift aircraft and spare parts to refurbish his country's aging F-16s.
Gates said officials are working to improve the U.S. foreign military sales system, which can be overly bureaucratic and sluggish. And he told Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono that the Pentagon would try to facilitate whatever upgrades or aircraft procurement they want.
Saying that Indonesia is considered by many to be "an indicator of the health of the entire region," Gates said it plays a leading role in peacekeeping and maritime security in the Asian Pacific.
Cooperation in the region, he said, would play out against a backdrop of the rise of India, the growth in China's military might and the ongoing threats from North Korea.
Those challenges are complicated by rogue nation states, terrorism threats, continued piracy problems on the high seas, and the emergence of deadly diseases — which could include avian flu.
Asked about negative impressions of the United States among Indonesian people, Sudarsono said they are largely a function of America's broad military and economic power. The U.S., he said, "is so vast that is just tends be perceived as intrusive" and meddlesome, and sometimes as a threat by some.
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.
The Pentagon contends that lingering suspicions of Indonesia's connections to terrorist networks, human rights violations and military dominance in government affairs do not reflect significant changes in the country in recent years. The United States does not appreciate how much Indonesia has changed, said Gates — in what appeared to be a reference to Congress, where there have been efforts to restrict military sales to Indonesia.
Asked earlier about terror links, Gates acknowledged that Indonesia-based terrorists may continue to have contact 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.
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.