JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — U.S. Vice President Mike Pence praised Indonesia’s democracy and moderate form of Islam on Thursday alongside the president of the world’s most populous Muslim nation, reinforcing his message with a visit to the region’s largest mosque.
Pence’s comments, though routine, had significance for Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who a day earlier suffered a serious political setback when a political ally was defeated by Islamic conservatives in the election for Jakarta governor. The divisive campaign undermined the image of Indonesia abroad as a generally tolerant Muslim nation.
Indonesia is the latest stop on an Asian tour by Pence that aims to reaffirm traditional U.S. alliances at a time when Donald Trump’s presidency has raised questions about the strength of the U.S. commitment to the region.
Pence said at a joint news conference with Jokowi that the U.S. wants to strengthen its strategic partnership with Indonesia. In brief comments, Jokowi said they agreed to boost cooperation.
The vice president praised Indonesia for its moderate form of Islam and said the two countries would continue to cooperate on combating terrorism.
“As the second- and third-largest democracies in the world, our two countries share many common values including freedom, the rule of law, human rights and religious diversity,” Pence said. “The United States is proud to partner with Indonesia. It promotes and protects these values.”
The vice president added: “Indonesia’s tradition of moderate Islam frankly is an inspiration to the world and we commend you and your people. In your nation as in mine, religion unifies, it doesn’t divide.”
But Pence foreshadowed some reworking of commercial and economic ties, saying that the U.S. seeks a free and fair relationship that helps job creation and economic growth for both sides. He said that U.S. exporters should face a level playing field and the relationship should be “win-win.”
Trump assailed the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal during his 2016 campaign and announced shortly after his inauguration that the U.S. would withdraw from the Pacific Rim-based TPP, which now includes 11 countries from Chile to New Zealand. Pence has sought to reassure allies in the region that the U.S. is still committed to trade and economic ties despite Trump’s decision on TPP.
Indonesia is on Trump’s trade hit list of nations that he considers the U.S. is losing out to in trade, and U.S. company Freeport-McMoran Inc., which operates the world’s largest copper mine in the Indonesian province of Papua, is in a protracted dispute with the Indonesian government.
Trump’s company, the Trump Organization, is active in Indonesia with plans to manage luxury resorts being built near the capital Jakarta and on the tourist island of Bali.
Trump’s Indonesian business partner, billionaire Hary Tanoe, is an aspiring politician who has said he might run for president in 2019.
Pence’s first engagement in Indonesia was morning tea with Jokowi at the presidential palace. He and his family later visited the Istiqlal Mosque, the largest in Southeast Asia.
The Pences removed their shoes at the entrance and his wife, Karen, and two daughters covered their heads with scarves. They walked inside the large prayer hall, observing the soaring dome, and also stopped at an open terrace in the mosque.
Pence later sat with several faith leaders in a conference room where a speaker gave Pence an overview of the mosque’s history. The mosque, which can accommodate up to 200,000 people, was designed by a Protestant and sits near a Catholic cathedral in central Jakarta.
The message and images sought to address questions in the Muslim world about Trump after his push for travel bans that would temporarily suspend visas from six predominantly-Muslim countries and halt the U.S. refugee program. Two judges have blocked the ban, prompting the Trump administration to appeal.
Trump’s executive order does not include Indonesia, but the country is home to nearly 14,000 refugees seeking resettlement in third countries and activists have said the ban would affect their ability of entering the U.S.