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Pompeo uses Jakarta visit to blast China's treatment of Uighurs

Top US diplomat says poses 'gravest threat to the future of religious freedom'

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, talks to Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi at a joint press conference in Jakarta on Thursday.   © AP

JAKARTA -- U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday called China's alleged human rights abuse of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province the "gravest threat to the future of religious freedom" in an address to an Islamic organisation in Jakarta.

"I know that the Chinese Communist Party has tried to convince Indonesia to look away from the torments that your fellow Muslims are suffering... Think about what you know of how authoritarian governments treat those who resist its rule," Pompeo told the youth wing of Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia's largest Muslim group, alluding to Indonesia's 30 years of dictatorship under former President Suharto.

"I'm sure you know the ways that the Islamic tradition and Indonesian tradition demand that we speak out and work for justice. I know you will do that," he added.

The U.S. has imposed sanctions on Chinese officials over alleged human rights abuses against the Uighur minority in Xinjiang. Beijing has denied any mistreatment of Uighurs and says the "re-education" camps there provide vocational training and are needed to fight extremism.

Pompeo's visit to Indonesia -- less than a week before the U.S. presidential election -- is part of a five nation blitz through Asian countries that, to varying degrees, have issues with China. India is involved in a border standoff with China; Sri Lanka and Maldives have "debt trap" problems; while both Indonesia and Vietnam, where he will visit after Jakarta, repeatedly lock horns over with Beijing over the South China Sea.

Before addressing the Islamic organisation, Pompeo met with his counterpart foreign minister Retno Marsudi and pledged more U.S. investment and trade with Indonesia, as part of Washington's Indo-Pacific strategy to counter the rise of China.

His visit to New Delhi on Tuesday yielded a key military agreement on the exchange of critical geospatial intelligence. And in Male, he promised to open the first U.S. embassy in the Maldives since the countries formed diplomatic relations in 1966. Pompeo's gift to Jakarta was a promise of stronger economic relations.

"Foreign Minister Retno and I shared the importance of shared values at the heart of our relationship and at the heart of Free and Open Indo-Pacific, but this starts with our economic ties," Pompeo said in a joint news conference with his Indonesian counterpart.

The secretary of state added that both nations "should do much more trade together, there should be much more investment here from the U.S." and that he will "do [his] best to deliver that."

Despite the maritime confrontations, Jakarta enjoys a fruitful economic and diplomatic ties with China.

The world's second-largest economy poured $3.5 billion worth of foreign direct investment into Indonesia in the first nine months of this year, the second highest source after Singapore, and Chinese companies are involved in key strategic sectors such the nickel processing. Beijing has also promised to supply Indonesia with over 30 million COVID-19 vaccine doses.

The U.S., on the other hand, only contributed $480 million in FDI between January and September, the 8th largest source.

On the South China Sea, Pompeo said Indonesia is "setting an example with decisive action to safeguard its maritime sovereignty" around the Natuna Islands, a small archipelago in an isolated spot in the South China Sea. Indonesian territorial claims in the water do not directly conflict with China's, but the exclusive economic zone around Indonesia's Natuna archipelago overlaps with Beijing's "nine-dash line."

The secretary of state called China's claim in the South China Sea "unlawful" and added that the U.S. will look to cooperate "in new ways" to protect the strategically important naval area.

His counterpart foreign minister Marsudi, sticking to Indonesia's long-standing commitment to foreign policy neutrality, did not name China specifically, but said the South China Sea "should be maintained as a peaceful and stable sea."

She also called on American businesses to "invest more in Indonesia including for projects in the outer islands of Indonesia, such as in Natuna Islands."

Earlier in the year, Indonesian President Joko Widodo also called on Japan to invest more in Natuna, when he met Japan's foreign minister Toshimitsu Motegi.

Pompeo met with Widodo later in the day. The president "said that to maintain this partnership [between Indonesia and the U.S.], serious efforts, mutual understanding and efforts to realize concrete cooperation, including economic cooperation" were needed, according to Marsudi who was present at the meeting.

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