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Rumsfeld visits Vietnam and Indonesia amid concern over China’s growing military might

Updated On: Jun 09, 2006

United States Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s Southeast Asian tour of Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia earlier this week, ended with a gently delivered but blunt warning from Indonesia against the US taking too forceful an approach to fighting terrorism.

Rumsfeld held talks with Indonesia's President and the country's top leaders yesterday in a bid to foster closer military ties and boost cooperation in the US-led war on terror.  But Indonesia also had a message for the Pentagon chief, warning the US that too forceful an approach to fighting terrorism could trigger a backlash across the world. 

Indonesian Defence Minister Juwono Sudarsono told his American counterpart that the superpower's international image was suffering because of its economic and military moves.  “As the largest Muslim country, we are aware of the perception or misperception that the US is overbearing, over present and overwhelming” when it appeared to be pushing its anti-terrorism policies on others, Sudarsono told a joint press briefing.  “The US is very powerful, so it lends to this misperception, not just in Indonesia, but across the world," he said, adding that, “It is best that you leave the main responsibility of anti-terrorist measures to the local government in question and not to be overly insistent about immediate results arriving from your perception of terrorists” or it will “only create more anger and antipathy against America.”

Rumsfeld, however, dismissed suggestions that the US had forced its agenda on other countries, defending US dealings with other countries on security issues and its “war on terror”.  He said that his host's advice that specific anti-terrorism measures be left to U.S. partners “was not unreasonable at all” and Washington did not insist on one-size-fits-all policies.

Despite the blunt message, Sudarsono said Jakarta would study “limited” participation in the US-led Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) programme to halt the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, which Indonesia has so far been wary of joining.  Other issues discussed included the expansion of US military assistance and supplies to Indonesia, counterterrorism steps and security in the Malacca Strait.

US-based Asian security analyst Dana Dillon said that Indonesia, which has home-grown Muslim extremists to worry about, faced risks in appearing too close to U.S. policies.  "Indonesia intends to chart its own course for the future and that is also in America's best interests," she said. 

Rumsfeld’s talks with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono focused on developing closer military ties, which have been moribund for 15 years.  The situation improved after Washington lifted a six-year arms embargo, imposed in 1999 after Indonesian military-backed militias ravaged East Timor during the territory's break from Jakarta, last November and re-established other military ties with the Muslim nation.   Yudhoyono stressed that in severing Indonesia-US military ties, Indonesia would not be the only one to lose, but also the US. 

Rumsfeld's trip is the latest in a series of visits by high-ranking US government officials to Indonesia, including that by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice early this year.  The Bush administration sees Indonesia, which has suffered a string of terrorist attacks targeting Westerners in recent years, and its moderate Muslim leaders as key allies in the fight against terrorism and a model of democratic reform in the Muslim world, overriding lingering concerns about the country's military reforms,

Earlier, Rumsfeld had met with Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai in Ha Noi, discussing the promotion of bilateral ties and other issues of common concern.  Rumsfeld’s visit will help enhance the cooperation between the two countries in general and the two defence ministries in particular; contributing to maintaining peace and stability in the two regions and the world, said Khai.

On bilateral relations, Khai said the two countries' military ties are under progress.  Vietnam is an important country in the region and the United States highly appreciates the relations with it, he noted.  Since the normalisation of diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the United States in 1995, cooperation between the two countries has been improved rapidly, especially in the fields of politics, economy, healthcare, education, science and technology, as well as in the fields of drug trafficking and trans-national crimes.  Rumsfeld said that US-Vietnam ties had reached a “new level” and that the former battlefield enemies would boost military exchanges and training. 

Vietnam is one of several Asian states with which the Pentagon has built close ties to help its war on terrorism and to hedge against a rising China, which Washington says is too secretive about its military spending and its intentions.  Vietnam shares America's desire for good relations with Beijing and wariness about rapid Chinese military growth.

Daniel Blumenthal, former China chief at the Pentagon, said the Vietnamese in fact “want China to take note that there is a regional response to Beijing's military build-up” and that both Washington and Hanoi benefit from warming military ties.  “Vietnam gains an offshore balancer while America gains another potential access point to the Taiwan Strait or other areas where China seeks to deny US access,” said Blumenthal, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Sources:

Anti-terror drive ‘can’t be forced’ (Straits Times, 7 June 2006)

Rumsfeld's Indonesia visit cements US military ties (Reuters, 6 June 2006)

Indonesia tells Rumsfeld to let local governments handle approach to terrorism (Today, 7 June 2006)

Rumsfeld gets Indonesia caution (Bangkok Post/dpa, 6 June 2006)

Vietnamese PM Meets with U.S. Defense Secretary (Xinhua, 6 June 2006)

US boosts military ties with Vietnam (Reuters, 5 June 2006)

US Defense Secretary's visit will enhance cooperation (Vietnam News Agency, 5 June 2006)