The foreign ministers of Malaysia and Indonesia met separately with senior U.S. government officials in Washington this week to discuss security-related issues including the South China Sea and efforts to counter the terrorist threat from Islamic State (IS), officials said.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan held individual meetings on Monday with Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman and Indonesian Minister of Foreign Affairs Retno Marsudi. Indonesia’s top diplomat also met with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis at the Pentagon.
During Sullivan’s meeting with Anifah, the two diplomats talked about strengthening bilateral ties in key security areas in light of a “growing threat” posed by IS and the need to ensure freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.
Nauert said Sullivan and Anifah “discussed the South China Sea, to include ensuring freedom of navigation and over-flights, as well as upholding a rules-based maritime order.”
The meeting took place as Chinese naval vessels were exercising this week with an aircraft carrier in a show of force involving at least 40 ships and submarines off Hainan Island in the South China Sea, Reuters news service reported Tuesday.
“The two leaders also pledged to strengthen cooperation to counter the growing threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” Nauert said, referring to the other name of IS.
It was not immediately clear if Nauert was referring to the IS threat in Southeast Asia, which has experienced militant attacks in recent years, including vicious fighting during a five-month siege by IS-linked militants in the southern Philippine city of Marawi last year.
Regarding Sullivan’s meeting with Retno, Nauert said they agreed to deepen “cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region for the benefit of regional security, prosperity, and a rules-based international order.”
Meeting at Pentagon
Earlier in the day, Retno met with Mattis, who described Indonesia as a “geographic and diplomatic fulcrum for the Indo-Pacific region” that had the ability to build consensus within the ASEAN regional bloc.
Mattis said this was “a very important factor as we seek to expand counterterrorism, to bolster maritime cooperation and to promote collective security,” according to a transcript released by the Pentagon.
“We welcome greater Indonesia leadership and training and interoperability with your neighbors. We believe it is a stabilizing factor, what you are doing,” Mattis said.
As an example, he cited an agreement between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines to launch joint maritime patrols in their common sea lanes.
“Your trilateral cooperation agreement with Malaysia and the Philippines serves as a good model from the North Natuna Sea, to the Sulu Sea and beyond,” the American defense chief said.
The three countries launched joint maritime patrols in June 2017. Four months later, as the battle of Marawi was nearing its end, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Manila began joint air patrols to bolster their coordinated maritime efforts. These were aimed at preventing cross-border movements of IS extremists to and from the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, among other common security concerns, officials from those countries said at the time.
Security analysts said the poorly-secured waterways separating Malaysia from the southern Philippines were a haven for pirates and militants, and may have been the route used by foreign fighters, including Malaysians and Indonesians, as they penetrated Mindanao and joined pro-IS militants in Marawi.
At least 1,200 people, mostly militants, were killed during five months of fighting in Marawi, according to Philippine military officials.
Chinese naval movements
Meanwhile, in developments related to territorial tensions in the South China Sea, satellite images provided by Planet Labs Inc. confirmed that a Chinese carrier group had entered the sea region as part of what the Chinese navy had earlier described as combat drills that were part of routine annual exercises, according to Reuters.
The sea is a vital waterway through which about U.S. $5 trillion in international trade passes annually. It was unclear where the flotilla was headed or how long operations would last, the report said.
China claims most of the mineral and resource-rich South China Sea, which is also claimed by Malaysia Brunei, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.
Sullivan’s meeting with the Indonesian and Malaysian foreign ministers took place just days before April 1, when he is expected to step in as acting U.S. Secretary of State, following Rex Tillerson’s dismissal earlier this month.