This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo launched a fresh diatribe against Beijing on Thursday, criticizing the Asian superpower over its persecution of Uyghur Muslims and military expansionism in the South China Sea, as he visited Indonesia as part of a regional tour.
America’s top diplomat met with his Indonesian counterpart and with President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo before giving a speech to the youth wing of Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Islamic organization.
In his address that focused on religious freedom, Pompeo urged Muslims to speak up about China’s treatment of its ethnic Uyghur minority in the northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.
“The atheist Chinese Communist Party has tried to convince the world that its brutalization of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang is necessary as a part of its counterterrorism efforts or poverty alleviation depending on which audience that they are speaking to,” Pompeo told the audience of young Indonesians.
China’s “war on people of all faiths” was “the greatest threat to the future of religious freedom,” he said.
“I know that the Chinese Communist Party [CPP] has tried to convince Indonesia to look away, look away from the torments that your fellow Muslims are suffering,” he said.
“I know that these same CCP officials have spun fantastic tales of happy Uyghurs eager to discard their ethnic religious and cultural identities to become more modern and enjoy the benefits of CCP-led development,” Pompeo added.
The United States has accused the Chinese authorities of arbitrarily detaining more than 1 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other indigenous Turkic Muslim people over the past three years in internment camps in XUAR.
Earlier this month, the U.S. State Department announced sanctions against the Chinese government, ruling Chinese Communist Party officials, and state entities believed to be responsible for or complicit in the detention or abuse of Muslims in the northwestern region.
Late last week, citing security sources, two Jakarta-based counter-terrorism experts told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, that Indonesia had deported to China four Uyghur men convicted of terrorism-related charges in 2015 after their release from prison last month.
Indonesian government officials would not confirm or deny the deportation claim, but a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Law and Human Rights told BenarNews on Wednesday that three Uyghurs had been released from prison on Sept. 19 and handed over to immigration authorities.
On Monday, a Germany-based group representing exiled Uyghurs worldwide urged Indonesia not to deport the Uyghurs to China.
“While the WUC does not condone the actions these individuals are accused of and unequivocally condemns terrorism, extremism, or any form of violence, we note that these individuals have served their sentences for the crimes they were accused of,” the World Uyghur Congress said in a statement.
“If they are forcibly returned to China, they would likely be subjected to enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, torture, and other serious human rights violations,” the WUC said.
South China Sea
In another challenge to China, Pompeo praised Indonesia for its stance on the contested South China Sea after meeting with Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi and Jokowi.
“All law-abiding nations reject the unlawful claims made by the Chinese Communist Party in the South China Sea, as is clear from Indonesia’s courageous leadership on the subject within ASEAN and at the United Nations,” Pompeo said during a joint press briefing where he and Retno took no questions. He was referring to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which is headquartered in the Indonesian capital.
“We welcome the example Indonesia set with decisive action to safeguard its maritime sovereignty around the Natuna Islands. I’m looking forward to cooperating together in the new ways to ensure maritime security and protect some of the world’s busiest trade routes,” he said.
Earlier this year, Indonesia sent fighter jets and ships to drive away Chinese fishing boats and Coast Guard ships which, Jakarta said, were encroaching on its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) off the Natuna chain.
In a diplomatic note sent to the United Nations secretary-general on May 26, Jakarta rejected China’s Nine-Dash Line map and its claim to historical rights to nearly all of the South China Sea.
Indonesia later rebuffed China’s invitation to negotiate what Beijing called “overlapping claims of maritime rights and interests” in the contested sea region.
For its part, the U.S. has taken a harder line in recent months against China’s intrusions into other claimants’ waters, declaring that Beijing does not have economic rights inside other nations’ EEZs or around disputed features.
While China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, it is claimed in part by the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, and Taiwan as well. Indonesia does not regard itself as a party to the South China Sea dispute, but Beijing claims historic rights to parts of the sea that overlap Indonesia’s EEZ.
Pompeo made similar anti-China comments during previous stops on his tour of Indo-Pacific countries that so far had taken him to India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives. He left Jakarta later on Thursday for Vietnam, his next stop on the tour.
In response to Pompeo’s visit to Jakarta, China’s ambassador to Indonesia said the secretary of state of had “deliberately smeared China and tried to pit China against Indonesia, which undermines regional peace and stability.”
“The Chinese side firmly opposes such efforts,” Ambassador Xiao Quan said in a statement posted on the embassy’s website. “Pompeo’s remarks and moves further lay bare the United States’ vile attempt and highlights some of its own serious problems.”
Meanwhile, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Pompeo’s true intention was to “let China fall back to an era of poverty and undevelopment, and let the world fall into the abyss of confrontation and division,” the Associated Press reported.
“This is just the biggest threat facing the world today. But regrettably, Pompeo was born in the wrong time. The trend of peace, development, cooperation and win-win in this era is irresistible,” Wang said, according to the report.
Retno, Indonesia’s foreign minister, said “the South China Sea should be maintained as a stable and peaceful sea.”
“We are committed to promoting an Indo-Pacific region that is open, inclusive, transparent, and rules-based,” she said during the joint press briefing with Pompeo.
“Therefore, any claims should be based on the universally recognized principle of international law, including UNCLOS 1982,” she said, referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Even as they agreed on the need for a strong South China Sea policy, neither Retno nor Pompeo brought up the issue of spy planes during their press briefing. Reuters news service reported that Indonesian officials had rejected a U.S. proposal made in July and August to allow P-8 Poseidon surveillance planes to land and refuel in the Southeast Asian country.
In August, Retno said Indonesia did not want to be caught up in rivalries between Washington and Beijing.
On the economic front, Pompeo said the United States sought to increase its investments in Indonesia.
“There should be much more investment here from the United States, especially in the digital, energy, and infrastructure sectors,” he said.
“I’ll do my best to help deliver that,” he said. “But as I say in most every country looking to create wealth for its people, the private sector needs the right incentives before it can jump in.”
He also praised Indonesia’s reform agenda.
“We hope you’ll keep taking steps to cut red tape, eliminate corruption, and increase transparency,” he said.
Analysts said Pompeo’s anti-China push is unlikely to sway Indonesia, which has prided itself in an independent foreign policy.
“In current circumstances, I don’t see much benefit in siding with the U.S. or with China,” said Dinna Prapto Raharja, an international relations lecturer at Bina Nusantara University in West Jakarta.
“Both nations have regional agendas that run counter to our foreign policy doctrine,” she told BenarNews.
Yohanes Sulaiman, a security analyst at Universitas Jenderal Achmad Yani in the city of Cimahi, said Indonesia’s non-aligned stance would be a stumbling block in the American effort to win support on China. He also said Jokowi is likely to face a domestic backlash if he deviates from the principle.
“Indonesia has growing economic and investment links with China that could be jeopardized by closer alignment with the United States,” Sulaiman said in an opinion piece published on the website of the University of Melbourne.
“While Indonesia maintains a huge trade deficit with China, Jakarta cannot afford to pick a fight with Beijing as it needs Chinese investment, especially in infrastructure and heavy industry, to jumpstart the economy,” he wrote.