JAKARTA: United States (US) Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel held talks in Indonesia on Monday as part of a tour to bolster US ties with Southeast Asia but a confrontation with Syria threatened to overshadow the trip.
As part of a week-long tour of the region, Hagel met President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Jakarta before scheduled discussions with his counterpart, Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro.
While the trip is meant to highlight Washington’s strategic “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific after a decade of war, an escalating showdown with the Syrian regime over its suspected use of chemical weapons has demanded Hagel’s attention since he arrived in the region last week.
With President Barack Obama weighing possible military action, Hagel has been taking part in White House crisis meetings via video link from his plane and hotel.
“I bring you greetings from President Obama,” Hagel told Yudhoyono at the start of their meeting.
Referring to Obama’s upcoming visit to the Indonesian island of Bali for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) meeting, Hagel said the US president was “looking forward to seeing you in October.”
He added that Washington was committed to “deepening and strengthening” ties between the two countries.
Obama spent part of his childhood in Indonesia and has called for improved ties with the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, which has embraced democracy since the downfall of dictator Suharto in 1998.
The United States has gradually expanded cooperation with Indonesia’s military despite concerns about the human rights record of its special forces.
US officials say the country’s military has improved its rights record and that Washington has an interest in expanding cooperation on counter-terrorism as Indonesia takes on radical Islamic groups.
The US tilt to Asia is driven in part by the region’s growing economic importance and concerns over China’s expanding military might.
But upheaval in the Middle East often competes for attention and resources, and some critics have questioned whether the Asia “pivot” is merely rhetoric.
After Jakarta, Hagel heads to Brunei on Tuesday for a regional defense gathering that will include China. On Thursday he flies to the Philippines on his final stop.