JAKARTA, Jan 23 (Reuters) - Indonesia said on Tuesday it was pinning its hopes on U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to help ease American limitations on ties with an elite Indonesian special forces unit, imposed over human rights abuses in the 1990s.
The United States announced in 2010 that it had lifted its outright ban on U.S. military contacts with the Indonesian special forces unit, known as Kopassus, which was accused of rights abuses in East Timor as it prepared for independence.
But legal restrictions meant to ensure the U.S. military does not become entangled with rights abusers prevented contacts with Kopassus from advancing beyond preliminary levels, U.S. officials say.
"For a while there have been sanctions against Kopassus ... (Mattis) will try to remove this," Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu told reporters in Jakarta, following talks with the U.S. defense chief.
"One of the sanctions is clearly that they are not allowed to go to America. They can't do training together, and he will reopen this."
Mattis expressed hope for deepening defense ties with Indonesia but he did not directly address Kopassus in his remarks to the press after talks with Ryacudu in Jakarta.
U.S. officials told reporters traveling with Mattis that they were exploring possible ways to expand contact with Kopassus, while complying with U.S. law.
Mattis' trip came as Indonesia, a vast archipelago of 17,000 islands, appears increasingly ready to assert its sovereignty in the contested South China Sea.
Indonesia has clashed with China over fishing rights around the Natuna Islands, detaining Chinese fishermen and expanding its military presence in the area in recent years.
In July, Indonesia renamed the northern reaches of its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea as the North Natuna Sea, a move seen as a significant act of resistance to China's territorial ambitions in the South China Sea.
Mattis seized upon Indonesia's name for the waterway as he praised the country's strategic maritime reach, calling the country "a maritime fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific area."
"It's critical," Mattis said of Indonesia.
"We can help maintain maritime domain awareness in the South China Sea, the North Natuna Sea. This is something that we look forward to doing."
The United States is one of Indonesia's top arms suppliers, recently delivering Boeing's Apache helicopters and 24 of Lockheed Martin's F-16 fighter jets. But Indonesia also buys arms from U.S. rivals, including Russia.
U.S. officials said Indonesia asked for pricing for an additional 48 F-16 aircraft, a deal which could be worth $4.5 billion. But Indonesia played down any imminent purchase and suggested it was still evaluating how many more aircraft it needed.
Ryacudu said Indonesia would buy weaponry when it "has the money."
"We only just bought F16s and everything. In (the) future there will definitely be (more purchases) because, as the years go by, there are things that must be replaced," he said. (Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Edward Davies and Nick Macfie)