JAKARTA (Reuters) -Cooperation in the war against terror will be the focus of Condoleezza Rice’s first visit to Indonesia as U.S. secretary of state this week, but the two sides will also be looking to strengthen business and political ties.
Despite differences over Middle East policy and sporadic, but large, anti-American demonstrations in Indonesia, Jakarta and Washington have generally good relations, and the southeast Asian nation is considered a close ally in U.S. anti-terrorism efforts.
Speaking to reporters on her way to Indonesia, Rice played down recent anti-American protests.
“What that shows is that Indonesia is a vibrant democracy and people can protest and speak their minds,” she said.
One irritant in relations is Jakarta’s repeated request to get direct access to Indonesian militant Hambali, in American hands since 2003, and ideally have him sent back to Indonesia.
Indonesia has long sought custody of Hambali — an Islamic preacher believed to be the mastermind behind bombings on the island of Bali in 2002 which killed 202 people — to try him and aid in other prosecutions of terrorist suspects.
“There is lip service and there is reality. The fact is the teamwork is not balanced. The U.S. prefers taking control of key operations (rather) than letting us handle the matter,” said Hariyadi Wirawan, head of the international relations department at the University of Indonesia.
Asked whether Washington would grant access to Hambali, Rice said Washington would continue to cooperate with the Indonesian government but she gave no details.
Rice begins her schedule on Tuesday. She will meet Indonesian officials including President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a former general with U.S. training who won Indonesia’s first direct presidential election in 2004 on a strong security platform.
The fight against bird flu, which has killed at least 22 people in Indonesia, and improving the Indonesian business climate for foreign investors will figure on the agenda.
She can also expect media questions about whether Washington is overlooking human rights violations by Jakarta.
One issue analysts had expected to feature looked to be moving off the table. Officials said a row between U.S. firm Exxon Mobil Corp. and Indonesian state oil firm Pertamina over operation of the lucrative Cepu oil block had finally been settled on Monday with an agreement on joint operation.
In addition to her official discussions, Rice is also expected to meet Islamic scholars in the world’s most populous Muslim nation.
“There is a perception among Muslims that the U.S. sees Islam as a threat … which sparks suspicion between one another. I hope the visit can repair ties and create a condition of mutual respect,” said Masdar Mas’udi, deputy chairman of the 40-million-strong mainstream Muslim group Nahdlatul Ulama.
The end of autocratic president Suharto’s 32-year rule in 1998 amid social unrest allowed democracy to flourish in Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation.
Rice said Indonesia had made “giant strides” toward democracy which had led to much closer bilateral ties.
But critics say progress on reforming the military and police — accused of numerous rights violations both before and after Suharto — has been too slow. Some argue Washington was too hasty in resuming defense ties after Yudhoyono took office.
“Pumping aid to an unreformed Indonesian military would serve only to encourage further rights abuses and undermine civilian governance,” said Lisa Misol of the New York-based group Human Rights Watch.
Rice dismissed such criticism, saying: “It’s a double-edged sword. You want to be careful not to cut off contacts with the very people who are going to be important to the restoration of democracy in countries.”