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International relations

Pentagon invites once-banned Indonesia minister amid China spat

Defense chief Prabowo has been denied entry over suspected rights abuses

Prabowo Subianto, who in 2000 was denied entry to the U.S. to attend his son's graduation ceremony, is now in Washington for high-level defense talks.   © AP

JAKARTA -- The multipronged U.S.-China spat has prompted Washington to lift a two-decade entry ban on Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, and to invite the former general suspected of human rights abuses to the Pentagon.

Subianto, in the U.S. on a five-day trip through Monday, is to hold high-level talks with U.S. defense officials. Washington's invitation comes as it seeks to coax Southeast Asian countries into its camp and away from China.

This is a historic moment for Subianto, who was denied a visa in 2000 when he tried to attend his son's university graduation. No official reason was given, though alleged involvement in human rights abuses is suspected.

But now, "it is in the interest of the U.S. to get as many Asian states to balance against China as possible," said Bonnie Chan, a fellow at the U.S. think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. "In July 2020, Secretary [Mike] Pompeo called for 'a new grouping of like-minded nations, a new alliance of democracies.' Indonesia, being the third-largest democracy in the world, is certainly a state that fits the bill."

Subianto's visit is to "fulfill the official invitation of the U.S. government through the United States" Department of Defense, said an Indonesian defense ministry official. "[The visit] aims to continue detailed discussions related to broader bilateral cooperation in the defense sector, such as strengthening cooperation in future military training and discussing global issues."

In the 1990s, Subianto was a commander of the country's special forces under former strongman President Suharto, his father-in-law at the time. He has been accused of several human rights abuses, including a case in which a unit he controlled was found to have abducted pro-democracy activists. This ultimately led to his discharge from the army, in 1998, after the fall of the Suharto regime. He then went into self-exile in Jordan.

Subianto has since returned and run in three presidential elections, once as a vice-presidential hopeful. He lost last year's race to President Joko Widodo, who raised eyebrows by naming Subianto defense minister and giving him the largest budget of any ministry or state institution this year.

Prabowo Subianto, right, then son-in-law of former Indonesian President Suharto, is seen in this 1998 photo with his former wife, Titik Hediati Prabowo, in Jakarta.     © Reuters

Moscow and Beijing have also courted the former general. Indonesia has a $1.1 billion deal for 11 Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets with Russia, and Subianto has visited the country twice since becoming defense minister.

Subianto has also said nothing ill of Beijing, at least publicly, despite an increasing number of encounters between Indonesian and Chinese vessels in waters north of the Natuna Islands, a small archipelago in an isolated spot in the South China Sea. China was one of the first countries Subianto visited following his appointment as defense minister.

"We share the same determination -- Indonesia sees China as a close friend, and we will work our best together to maintain peace and stability in the region," Subianto said in May, in a rare public remark since taking office.

Beijing has built strong economic and diplomatic ties with Jakarta. China was the second largest source of foreign direct investment in the first half of this year and is engaged in strategically important nickel-processing and other projects. Beijing has also promised to supply Indonesia with over 30 million COVID-19 vaccines this year.

"It is the U.S.'s own making" that Indonesia is now closer to China in defense matters, said Teuku Rezasyah, a defense and international relations observer at Indonesia's Padjajaran University.

Rezasyah says the U.S. makes life difficult for foreign governments that go elsewhere to purchase fighter jets. Countries that conclude deals with adversaries like China and Russia are threatened with sanctions, he said. At one point, when Indonesia considered purchasing arms from Scandinavian countries, it hit a roadblock: The aircraft it was trying to buy used U.S. technologies, and any transaction required U.S. approval.

According to Rezasyah, "Subianto must tell Washington: 'You have a problem with China, so we won't buy [military equipment] from China. We may consider purchasing from the U.S., but it is too expensive. We have alternatives from Russia, and we've talked about it on technical levels."

He added that it is in Washington's own interest to listen to Indonesia's voice and consider its defense needs. Doing so, Rezasyah said, will eventually work in the U.S.'s favor by balancing power in the South China Sea away from China.

Human rights groups, meanwhile, are unhappy with the lifting of the ban on Subianto. In a letter to Pompeo on Tuesday, Amnesty International and six other human rights groups said the invitation must be rescinded "if it purports to provide him immunity from the atrocities of which he is accused."

"Allowing him to freely travel to the U.S. to meet with senior U.S. government officials ... will be catastrophic for human rights in Indonesia," the letter said.

Additional reporting by Wajahat Khan, Erwida Maulia and Bobby Nugroho

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