[Updated on Aug. 27, 12:40 p.m.]
Indonesia will buy eight Apache attack helicopters off the United States, it was announced on Monday, as US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Jakarta in what analysts said was a diplomatic bid to check the rise of China.
During the meeting, Yudhoyono said that Indonesia-US cooperation could enhance the prosperity of both nations, as well as have important implications for the peace and stability of Asia, according to a spokesman.
The world’s largest economy is in the process of shifting resources in Asia and the Pacific as part of a “pivot” with a view to the emergence of China.
“We are strengthening our bilateral ties and our cooperation in the region,” Yudhoyono said on Monday.
Both statesman said the Asia-Pacific region was an engine of global economic growth, underscoring the importance of peace and stability in the region, including a peaceful resolution to South China Sea territorial disputes.
“South China Sea is part of … the larger picture of relations in the region,” said Teuku Faizasyah, Yudhoyono’s spokesman for international affairs.
Hagel, for whom Jakarta was the second stop on a week-long four-nation trip that began in Malaysia on Saturday, voiced US appreciation for Yudhoyono’s leadership, which he said contributed to regional stability.
“I bring you greetings from President [Barack] Obama,” Hagel told Yudhoyono at the start of their meeting.
Hagel said the US president was “looking forward to seeing you in October,” referring to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders meeting in Bali.
The defense secretary 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 over several years, even while voicing concerns about the country’s human rights record.
US officials say the Indonesian military has improved its human rights practices and that Washington has an interest in expanding cooperation on counter-terrorism.
The US tilt to Asia is driven in part by the region’s growing economic importance and concerns over China’s expanding military might.
Several analysts said that Monday’s announcement of the sale of the eight Boeing AH-64E Apache helicopters in a deal worth $500 million (including radar, training and maintenance), was part of a broader effort to persuade Indonesia to maintain its position as US friend amid the rise of China.
“I think the US needs to keep Indonesia close. And offering military equipment is one way to do it,” said Aleksius Jemadu, dean of Pelita Harapan University’s social and political science department.
Officials confirmed that the sale represented the culmination of more than a year of behind-the-scenes work by Indonesia, which saw the helicopters as a key part of a wider plan to modernize its weaponry.
A 14-person delegation, including Army Chief Gen. Moeldoko and Defense Ministry Secretary General Lt. Gen. Budiman, traveled last week to a Boeing factory in Arizona to inspect the aircraft.
On meeting the Indonesian delegation, Boeing business development manager Dave Bostrum said the deal was important to the evolution of the Indonesian military. “The Apache is expected to be a key part of Indonesia’s continuing efforts to improve its strategic defense capabilities,” he said.
When it first emerged that Indonesia wanted to acquire the helicopters, two human rights groups — The East Timor Action Network and West Papua Advocacy Team — wrote to the US Congress expressing their opposition to the sale.
Indonesia’s defense preparedness has lagged in recent years, with econ o mic problems preventing the country from maintaining or upgrading its military equipment. During his first term, Yudhoyono slashed defense purchases to free up money for economic and social policies, but he later increased the defense budget.
For 2014, defense allocations stand at Rp 83 trillion ($7.65 billion), the largest share of any government program.
Beside bilateral and regional issues, Yudhoyono and Hagel also discussed global issues — including the conflicts in Syria and Egypt— where Indonesia may play a role. The US has indicated it is preparing for military action in Syria.
“The president expressed Indonesia’s position on Syria and Egypt,” Faizasyah said.
After meeting with Yudhoyono, Hagel met with Indonesian Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro in a follow-up to talks held recently at the Shangri-La Dialogue.
Hagel will head to Brunei today for a regional defense gathering that will include China. On Thursday he will fly to the Philippines, his final stop.
Additional reporting from AFP & Reuters