|AP Photo/Firdia Lisnawati|
NUSA DUA, Indonesia - U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Oct. 23 that Washington will continue to develop military ties with Indonesia but keep a watchful eye on rights abuses, after over a decade of suspended cooperation.
He said closed-door talks with Indonesian counterpart Purnomo Yusgiantoro focused on "Indonesia's growing importance as a global leader and the long-term commitment of the U.S. to the security and prosperity of this region.
"This year alone the U.S. is conducting more than 150 activities, exchanges and visits with the Indonesian military," Panetta told reporters on the resort island of Bali.
Panetta said the U.S. was still monitoring possible rights abuses, noting last week's incident in Indonesia's easternmost Papua province where five people were found dead after security forces stormed a pro-independence assembly.
"We support Indonesia's efforts against separatism in that area but when it comes to any human rights abuses ... we want to ensure that discipline is taken and exerted against anyone who violates human rights," Panetta said.
"We expressed concerns about the events that have occurred there and the MoD made it clear that the matter is under investigation."
Relations with the Indonesian army had nearly screeched to a halt and remained frozen for 12 years over abuses during former dictator Suharto's 32-year rule, which ended in 1998.
Indonesia's Kopassus commando unit is accused of deadly abuses in Papua, East Timor and Aceh during that time. Bilateral cooperation was restarted in July 2010 by Panetta's predecessor, Robert Gates.
A senior defense official travelling with Panetta said cooperation that was initially focused on the highest echelons of the army now extended to the operational level, including training in human rights.
In his first trip to the region since taking the helm in July at the Pentagon, the former CIA director Panetta began his tour in Indonesia before heading to Japan on Oct. 24 and South Korea on Oct. 26.
His trip coincides with sensitive direct talks between the United States and North Korea in Geneva on Oct. 24 to try to lay the ground for reviving long-stalled nuclear disarmament negotiations.
During his stay in Bali, Panetta will also meet Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and defense ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on the sidelines of the bloc's meeting on the island.
"There's a clear message that I'm going to bring to the region ... we will remain a strong Pacific force in the 21st century, and we will maintain a strong presence in the Pacific in the 21st century," Panetta told reporters.
Disputes between ASEAN members and China over the resource-rich South China Sea are likely to feature high on the agenda, as Washington has called for a regional code of conduct and insisted on "freedom of navigation" through the crucial global shipping route despite Beijing's territorial claims.
Panetta's trip also comes as the United States and North Korea are to hold direct talks in Geneva.
Before any broader discussions, the U.S. and South Korea are insisting the North take concrete steps to demonstrate it is sincere about resuming full six-party nuclear talks which also include Japan, Russia and China.
The defense chiefs will consider steps to bolster diplomacy, but also ensure that they are prepared, should North Korea "choose to undertake a provocation," said the official.