WASHINGTON/JAKARTA (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will seek greater cooperation from China and Southeast Asia’s main Muslim states, Indonesia and Malaysia, in the campaign against Islamic State and staunching the flow of foreign fighters to the militant group, U.S. and Asian officials said.
China’s most senior diplomat, State Councilor Yang Jiechi, is expected in Kerry’s home city of Boston on Friday and Saturday, a Chinese diplomat said. Kerry is then due in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, for Monday’s inauguration of newly-elected president Joko Widodo.
The trip to Indonesia is significant on several fronts. A fast-growing beacon of moderate Islam and Southeast Asia’s largest economy, Indonesia exerts enormous influence in a region that has seen growing numbers of fighters traveling to Syria to join Islamic State, also known as ISIL.
Indonesian security crackdowns have weakened and dispersed militant groups, helping to transform the country’s image since the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks when it was an epicenter of Islamist militancy and breeding ground for the likes of Jemaah Islamiah, which carried out the 2002 Bali bombing and other attacks on Western targets.
A senior U.S. administration official said the focus of talks with Indonesian leaders would be on building a relationship with the new government and discussing ways to stop the flow of fighters from Indonesia and Muslim-majority Malaysia.
In Jakarta, Kerry will also meet with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. Malaysia’s foreign ministry said the two would discuss the global coalition against Islamic State.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha have also said they will attend the inauguration. British Prime Minister David Cameron and other leaders have also been invited but have yet to confirm.
The United States has assembled a coalition of what it says are more than 40 countries and has carried out air strikes in territory held by the group in Iraq and Syria. U.S. fighter and bomber planes made 14 raids against Islamic State targets near the Syrian town of Kobani on Wednesday and Thursday.
In Boston with Yang and again in Jakarta with Indonesian officials, Kerry is expected to discuss expanded intelligence cooperation, including tracking militant movements and financing, say analysts familiar with the administration’s thinking.
The fight against Islamic State offers a rare convergence of security interests for Beijing and Washington, and a break from their more typical enmity on sensitive geopolitical issues, from Iran to the South China Sea.
China has significant energy interests in Iraq and is also troubled by what it says are domestic Islamist militants. Its state media has reported that militants from the western region of Xinjiang, which abuts Pakistan and Afghanistan, have fled from the country to get “terrorist training” from Islamic State fighters for attacks at home.
The head of the U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Samuel Locklear, has said around 1,000 recruits from India to the Pacific may have joined Islamic State in Syria or Iraq.
Security officials and analysts estimate they include more than 100 citizens of Indonesia, Malaysia and the southern Philippines. Malaysian and Indonesian militants have also discussed forming a 100-strong Malay-speaking Islamic State unit in Syria, according to a report from a security group released last month.
About 160 Australian jihadists are thought to be in Iraq or Syria, several in leadership positions, say security experts.
The head of the U.S. Marine Corps said that it had been expanding its relationship with the Indonesian army over the past four to six months and could, along with Australia, form an alliance for joint operations and military exercises.
“They’re a pretty important partner,” Marine Corps Commandant General James Amos said, citing ties with Indonesia in the Asia-Pacific region, where worries have been mounting about Chinese assertiveness over territorial claims.
The general cited Indonesia’s critical strategic location in the Pacific, just north of Darwin, Australia, where the Marine Corps already has a small contingent of Marines that is slated to grow substantially in coming years.
On Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama told military leaders from more than 20 countries working with Washington to defeat Islamic State that he was deeply concerned about the group’s advances at the north Syrian town of Kobani and in western Iraq.
Chris Johnson, of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies research group, said China and the United States may seek from their talks to align messages as to what they would like to see from the Iraqi government.
In Indonesia, the waning of the Jemaah Islamiah insurgency appeared to have reduced enthusiasm for cooperating against militancy and the issue of militant flows would be have to be discussed discreetly.
“Publicly the Indonesians don’t want to talk about this issue,” Johnson said, “and IS is a kind of ‘not our back yard kind of issue’ so they may not be as enthusiastic there.”
Outgoing Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono banned Islamic State and made its eradication at home a top priority. His spokesman, Julian Pasha, said last month, however, that Indonesia would employ a “soft power” approach and made clear it did not plan to get directly involved overseas.
Malaysia has arrested 36 citizens suspected of militancy since April this year and authorities believe that at least 30 are already in Syria and Iraq, fighting for different groups tied to Islamic State. On Wednesday, authorities said they had arrested 13 Malaysians suspected of having links to Islamic State who were planning to leave for Syria.
Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton and Andrea Shalal in Washington, Randy Fabi and Kanupriya Kapoor in Jakarta, Trinna Leong and Al-Zaquan Amer Hamzah in Kuala Lumpur, Matt Siegel in Sydney and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Jason Szep and Grant McCool