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US Army chief seeks closer security ties with Indonesia amid tensions in South China Sea

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — U.S. Army Chief of Staff James McConville met with Indonesia’s top defense official on Friday to push for stronger security ties amid growing Chinese maritime activity in the Indo-Pacific region.

McConville said he and Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto discussed ways to deepen cooperation, including enhanced military exercises between the countries.

“We have many friends in the region, and we work closely together. We all share the same interests for the region: peace, security, stability,” McConville said. “That's why we work together on maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific for everyone.”

Subianto said the promotion and maintenance of peace and stability in the region “is our common concern,” but stressed Indonesia’s neutral stance, saying it wants to maintain relationships with all nations, “especially all the major powers.”

McConville arrived in Jakarta late Thursday from the Philippines, which is locked in an ongoing dispute with China over territory in the South China Sea. His visit there followed joint U.S.-Philippine war drills last month that antagonized Beijing.

On Thursday, leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations met in Indonesia for a summit at which territorial disputes in the South China Sea were high on the agenda. China claims virtually all of the sea, which is also claimed in part by Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

The South China Sea is home to vital shipping lanes, plentiful fish stocks and undersea mineral resources. China and ASEAN have made little headway in finalizing a code of conduct to avoid conflicts in the area.

The ASEAN leaders renewed a call for self-restraint in the disputes to avoid miscalculations and confrontations, repeating language used in previous ASEAN statements.

While China’s influence and military strength in the region are growing rapidly, the U.S. remains the dominant military power. Washington has a security alliance with the Philippines and strong relations with several other ASEAN members.