Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop "insists" that Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is "very positive". But Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa is equally insistent that there is a serious problem with the relationship. If there is regular dialogue between Australia and Indonesia, as Bishop claims, it would seem it is being conducted at cross purposes.
Bishop says the two countries talk officially almost every day, but that does not seem to have thawed relations. They were talking when the Australian ambassador to Indonesia, Greg Moriarty, was again called in for a "please explain" over Australia’s asylum seeker "life boat" policy.
But what Bishop is not saying is that these conversations amount to a one-way rebuke. The most recent of these negative statements is that Natalegawa will raise the "escalated" issue of Australia returning asylum seekers to Indonesia in Australian-supplied life boats with United States Secretary of State John Kerry.
The US is a partner in the Bali Process, established in 2002 as a regional response to people smuggling. The Bali Process includes as members those countries that are the principle source of Australia’s asylum seekers, as well as those countries they are transiting through.
However, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott says he is relaxed about this, no doubt because the US is unlikely to want to become embroiled in a regional spat between allies. But it does, again, indicate the depth of Indonesia’s concern over asylum seekers traveling from international waters back to Indonesia on Australian government-supplied boats.
There is no doubt that the Indonesian response to returning asylum seekers to Indonesia is, to some degree, playing to a domestic audience ahead of forthcoming elections. As with all countries, Indonesian foreign policy primarily projects domestic priorities. This does not, however, diminish the extent to which government mishandling of domestic concerns may wreck foreign relations.
Perhaps more so than most other countries, given its fractured geography, Indonesia has always been deeply sensitive about foreign powers impinging on its territorial sovereignty. Coming on the back of inadequately dealing with phone-tapping revelations -- exacerbated by fresh reports that Australia’s phone tapping was much more extensive than first reported -- and then Australian naval vessels entering Indonesian territory, putting asylum seekers on Australian government boats and sending them back to Indonesia now has Indonesia searching for possible responses short of expelling Australian embassy staff.
What Indonesia wants -- and what the Bali Process was established to deliver -- is a regionally co-ordinated approach to the asylum seeker issue. In short, Indonesia wants Australia to work collaboratively to stem the tide of asylum seekers, for those who do reach the region to be quickly and appropriately processed, and for Australia to accept greater regional responsibility.
That Indonesia wants to keep the Bali Process on track is part of the "very positive" conversation with Australia -- and it is falling on deaf ears. Ahead of a change of government in Indonesia and thus charting less certain diplomatic territory, Australia is likely to remain similarly blind to the damage this issue is causing to the long-term bilateral relationship.
Short of a bureaucratic snafu, which is always possible, Australian convicted drug smuggler Schapelle Corby will be released on parole from Indonesia’s Kerobokan prison within days. She's breaking new ground.
Parole is relatively uncommon in Indonesia, primarily because parolees have to be accepted back into the community in which they intend to reside. Many communities have been unwilling to accept convicted criminals, but Corby’s sister Mercedes and Balinese brother-in-law, Wayan Widyartha, appear to have secured support from their local community in central Kuta.
Indonesian Justice Minister Amir Syamsuddin has said Corby will not receive any special consideration for or against as he considers some 1700 applications for parole over the next few days. She will, he says, be treated as would any other prisoner.
Corby has refused to acknowledge guilt over smuggling marijuana into Indonesia, which has been a significant factor in ensuring that she did not have her prison sentence fully commuted. However, this should not be a factor in whether or not she is paroled.
This is a positive sign for Corby, as there have been cases in the past where judicial decisions have been influenced by political considerations. Clearly, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono does not consider Corby’s potential parole as a political issue, although he is attempting to put forward a candidate in this year’s presidential election in July, and despite the damaged state of Australia-Indonesia relations.
It shows, too, that the Indonesian judicial process is, or appears to be, operating in a straight and transparent manner, at least at the top. This has sometimes not been the case in the past.
As for Corby, assuming all goes according to plan, she will live with her sister and brother-in-law. She will be free to stay elsewhere in Indonesia, so long as she informs the local police of her intended whereabouts.
The catch, such as it is, is that she cannot leave Indonesia until her sentence is completed in 2016. She must also stay in Indonesia for a further year to assure Indonesian authorities that her parole has proven she is of reformed character.
On the scale of hardships, however, and especially after eight years in an Indonesian prison, living in Bali for the next three years should be relatively comfortable. This will be especially so if she is able to moderate any comments she might make to an enthusiastic media. Getting the local community offside with injudicious observations would be the last thing she would want over the coming months and years.
Perhaps the biggest adjustment that Corby will have to make is simply that of coming to terms with her prison experience. There have been indications, at different times, that she has been psychologically troubled by the experience.
More positively, that time will have ensured that Corby is at least familiar with the wider cultural mores of Indonesia generally and of Bali in particular. One would expect, too, after such time, she would have learned some Indonesian, which, although far from necessary in much of Bali, is always more rather than less helpful.
After her experience in prison, Corby’s next biggest challenge will be how she handles intense media attention. If she is able to secure a financially lucrative media deal, such as for an exclusive interview, she would be wise to be discreet about being rewarded, in effect, for her conviction for breaking the law.
Beyond that, we should not read into this parole any potential leniency for the so-called Bali Nine. They are still in very deep trouble.
Australia and Indonesia have worked hard over the past decade to build a strong bilateral relationship, seen as valuable by Indonesia and as critically important by Australia. That relationship is now in tatters.
The Australian government has been at pains to explain to Indonesia that recent naval incursions into Indonesian territorial waters, intended to stop asylum seeker boats, were unintentional. From Indonesia’s perspective, it matters little whether the incursions were intentional or just the logical if unintended consequence of a much disliked Australian government policy.
Similarly, Australia’s policy of giving asylum seekers lifeboats to return to Indonesia adds a further layer of complication to Australian policy. From Indonesia’s perspective, the flow of asylum seekers is not official Indonesian policy, but the Australian navy putting asylum seekers bound for Australia in Australian lifeboats bond for Indonesia is official Australian policy.
This policy is seen by Indonesia as diplomatically clumsy as it is objectionable. Indonesia has said, repeatedly, that it wants Australia to abandon its policy of turning back asylum seeker boats. Putting asylum seekers in lifeboats only heightens those objections.
Indonesia has now launched its own naval patrols, not to stop asylum seekers leaving Indonesia but to stop Australian naval incursions. Australian naval vessels will no doubt be extra cautious about future transgressions into Indonesian territorial waters and, beyond that, there are a series of warnings to go through before confrontation.
At best, however, the bilateral relationship is continuing to deteriorate. At worst, mistakes can happen.
The Australian navy may continue to turn (or tow) asylum seeker boats back to near Indonesian territorial waters. But it will not be able to compel asylum seeker boats to remain within them.
When the monsoonal season ends and the "sailing season" resumes, around April, the flow of asylum seeker boats is again likely to increase. The problem faced by the Australian Navy will, therefore, become more rather than less complicated.
The first question is, then, whether Australia’s defence approach to an immigration issue is sustainable. The second and larger question is whether Australia can continue to alienate, seeming indefinitely, its most important strategic relationship.
If Australia is serious about finding a long-term solution to the asylum seeker issue, it needs to work closely with Indonesia and other regional neighbors to put in place agreed and workable policies. Such policies go beyond the simple, if failed, "policing"" that existed until late last year.
Indonesia, probably Malaysia and possibly Thailand and Singapore need to have in place stricter immigration policies, to screen "onward bound" travellers. There also needs to be regional co-operation around the quicker and internationally recognised processing of those asylum seekers who do end up in the region.
Such a policy would limit the flow of asylum seekers, would meet Australia’s international obligations and would not alienate critically important relationships. However, this would require the type of trust and co-operation that Australia’s existing approach to asylum seekers has effectively ended.
The Australian government’s approach to asylum seekers worked well as a pre-election slogan, but lacked a properly developed plan. As a result, Australia has dug itself into a policy hole.
If Australia now wishes to extricate itself from this situation it must start by following the first rule of holes: when you are in one, stop digging.
Indonesia’s democracy is being increasingly tested by the triple challenges of anti-reform actors, a high-level political malaise and popular disenchantment with the electoral process.
Prabowo Subianto accepts the Great Indonesia Movement Party nomination for the 2014 presidential election (Photo: Wikipedia).
One indicator of this has been an increasing tendency by the Indonesian military (TNI) to reassert itself into the political debate. Indonesia is heading into legislative elections in April and presidential elections in July on the back of poor performance by the country’s politicians, turning off voters in droves. Against this backdrop, one of Indonesia’s most senior army generals has raised the spectre of the army’s return to involvement in politics.
Indonesia’s army strategic command head, Lieutenant General Gatot Nurmantyo, has criticised Indonesia’s democracy as ‘empty’ and said that popular will expressed through elections is not always right. As a panacea, Nurmantyo has called for a reassertion of the nationalist ideology of Pancasila (five principles), which underpinned Suharto’s three decades as military-backed president.
Nurmantyo’s comments, made to a Pancasila Youth (PP) rally in October, reflect an increasing confidence by TNI hard-liners in challenging restrictions on military contact with politics. It was this hard-line faction of the TNI that helped end Indonesia’s military reform process around the time that President Yudhoyono began his second term as president.
Yudhoyono’s second term has been widely viewed as, at best, lack-lustre, and his Democratic Party-led government has been plagued by a series of corruption scandals. With other political parties fairing little better and ‘money politics’ dominating local electoral contests, popular support for Indonesia’s democratic process is in decline.
A series of surveys have shown that Indonesia’s forthcoming electoral participation rate may slump to below half. There is even an appetite among many voters for a return to ‘strong’ leadership, with a preference for candidates with a military background.
In a political environment in which one of the two front-runners for the presidency is former military hard-liner Lieutenant General (ret.) Prabowo Subianto, Nurmantyo’s breaking of over a decade of military silence on domestic politics signals a potential alternative to Indonesia’s democratic path.
Prabowo’s popularity is behind Jakarta governor Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo in the presidential polls. But Jokowi, himself a populist, does not yet have the backing of a major political party that is required for presidential nomination. Political support — if it comes — will be from former President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), which has also demonstrated pro-military leanings at times.
Democracy in developing states tends to be vulnerable to reversal, particularly where the military remains primarily focused on internal rather than external threats. While Indonesia’s electoral system will very likely be retained, the potential for it to be restricted in ways that render voting more or less meaningless, as under Suharto, cannot be ruled out.
Nurmantyo’s controversial address to the PP was explained away, unconvincingly, by a senior politician as not contravening a ban on military personnel being involved in politics as it focused on the state ideology of Pancasila. The PP itself was founded by the TNI in 1959, soon after the military became directly involved in domestic politics.
Initially a civilian front for the military, the PP quickly degenerated into an organisation of thugs and criminals who often undertook dirty work on behalf of the Suharto regime. It has more recently been involved in violent turf wars with other gangs and remains associated with particular factions within the TNI.
Nurmantyo’s comments are not just the ravings of a military extremist, as he has been viewed as a rising star in the Indonesian army. His hard-line views saw him recently passed over for the position of army commander, but with a more conservative president in office following the July elections it is possible that Nurmantyo’s military career could again rise.
Indonesia’s neighbours are already concerned over the outcome of July’s presidential elections and a possible lurch towards a more assertively nationalist orientation. Set against growing voter apathy, generals such as Nurmantyo are well positioned to push Indonesia even further away from its recent path of reform.
Jokowi is a populist and has not enunciated a clear policy position. He may not be as pro-military as Prabowo, but his views on the military and the nature of democracy are largely unknown. If he was put forward by PDI-P — which is not looking hopeful at this stage — he would be required to follow PDI-P policy, such as it is, which is ‘preservation of national unity’ above all, which in turn is code for a greater role for the TNI.
The likelihood of Indonesia further entrenching its democratic credentials will require a win by a convincingly reform-oriented presidential candidate. Scanning of Indonesia’s political field just months away from the elections, however, holds out limited hope.
Australia and Timor-Leste are in a diplomatic lull following the revelations that Australia spied on Timor-Leste's cabinet via agents working through its aid program. Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao is in South Africa for the funeral of Nelson Mandela, who had visited him in prison in Jakarta and thus helped elevate his international status.
But one senior minister, left to mind the shop, chuckled quietly. By spying on Timor-Leste, he believes that Australia has provided the mechanism required to invalidate the unequal Timor Sea treaty between the two countries.
There is official insistence that Australia and Timor-Leste remain close friends, despite the occasional angry comment. This particular dispute, the Timor-Leste government believes, should remain quarantined from the wider relationship.
Australia's official perspective is similar, with ambassador Miles Armitage taking a soft line towards recent demonstrations outside the Australian embassy. He was dismayed by riot police over-reacting and firing tear gas at a small group of protesters, also gassing ordinary police who had the situation well under control.
But it is not as though spying in Timor-Leste is much of a secret. One minister privately joked that the Chinese-built foreign affairs building is full of listening devices. And then there is the Chinese-built presidential palace and defence forces headquarters.
Australia is far from alone in its close interest in the Timor-Leste government. It is also far from alone in keeping tabs on the other representative offices here. Embassy row, along the seafront west of the town centre, boasts compounds that would look impressive in much larger capitals.
The substantial presence of China, the United States, Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Russia, Portugal and the other Lusophone states -- Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, New Zealand -- reflects Timor-Leste's strategically important location astride oil and gas fields, a critical submarine deep sea route between the Indian and Pacific Oceans and being in the middle of the world’s largest archipelago.
It also reflects the simple fact that, with everyone here and paying attention, everyone else also feels they need to be here and paying attention to everyone else. Timor-Leste itself demurs on this question, claiming that it does not have the capacity to spy.
Yet in its 24-year struggle for independence, the Timor-Leste guerrilla army's intelligence network surpassed even that of the notoriously extensive intelligence network of the Indonesian military. The old networks, like the old clandestine names -- of which Prime Minister Xanana, President Taur Matan Ruak and past parliamentary speaker Fernando Lasama are but a few -- remain intact.
Information -- about everything and everyone -- always has been and remains the richest of prizes in Timor-Leste. To the extent that intelligence gathering activities have changed since Indonesian times, it is only their much greater scope that is different.
The Coalition government’s first months in office have been a crash course in regional politics, with somewhat more emphasis on the "crash". Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has now put in place the first of what is expected to be six steps to repair Australia's damaged relationship with Indonesia, while relations with East Timor are being battered by clumsy handling of that country's claim for arbitration over the Timor Sea.
Bishop's visit to Jakarta and her softer approach to Australia's culpability over spying on Indonesia, including its President, was exactly what was needed to keep this critically important relationship on track. Unfortunately, it was needed more than three weeks ago, when such an approach could have averted the subsequent fallout.
Had Bishop gone to Jakarta with exactly her current approach when the spying scandal first broke -- but before President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was involved -- the issue would have been neutralised. Instead, Prime Minister Tony Abbott weighed in via Parliament, making a bad situation worse.
That lesson about pre-emptive diplomacy has now been learned. But Indonesia will have to take the lead and shape a re-established relationship.
With East Timor, the government -- and its predecessor -- have known for years that Australia would face a legal challenge over the forced carve-up of the Timor Sea. The East Timorese government has long signalled that its claims against Australia included allegations of Australian spying in order to gain an unfair advantage.
With the first hearing on the matter in the International Court of Arbitration known well in advance, it is deeply puzzling why Attorney-General George Brandis would wait until almost the eve of the hearing before ordering raids on the office of East Timor's lawyer, Bernard Collaery, and the home of a former Australian Secret Intelligence Service officer.
Brandis claims the raids were not intended to try to thwart East Timor’s case, but were rather focused on preventing the release of classified information. But given the timing, that is not how it looks.
In any case, most of the relevant material was already in The Hague and will be available to the court. The raids and cancelling of the passport of the former ASIS officer are a minor glitch for East Timor’s case, but will be counted against Australia’s argument before the court.
So, too, being counted against Australia will be former foreign minister Alexander Downer’s support for Woodside Petroleum -- the major player in proposed Timor Sea gas extraction -- and the economic benefit it stands to receive as a consequence of the Timor Sea carve-up. That Downer has since been put on Woodside’s payroll looks, at best, like a conflict of interest.
At stake in the hearing is the legality of Australia’s CMATs agreement with East Timor which, if it is found to be invalid, will also invalidate two previous treaties which are "read together" with CMATS. Up for grabs, again, will be the issue of a permanent sea border between the two countries, and control over more than $40 billion worth of gas and oil.
Should this claim be successful, not only will the sea border with East Timor be up for grabs, the previously related sea border with Indonesia will then become out of synch. One border will reflect a median point between two countries, the other the edge of a continental shelf.
Of major concern to Australia is that it could now lose territorial reach and control over a good proportion of the Timor Sea's resources. Of at least equal concern is the flow-on effect this could have for the border with Indonesia.
A dispute between Australia and tiny East Timor over their sea border is troubling. A subsequent territorial dispute with Indonesia would make the recent spying row pale into insignificance.
It may be that the letter sent by Prime Minister Tony Abbott to Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will start to calm diplomatic tensions between the two countries. Given political sensitivities in Jakarta, it also may be that tensions will continue in any case, particularly if the letter is deemed inadequate.
But what is becoming increasingly clear is that Australia's close relationship to Indonesia, developed especially since Yudhoyono has been in office and at its strongest just a couple of months ago, may remain in reverse for a lot longer to come. This is likely to be the case even if the immediate diplomatic row is resolved.
There are three key drivers to the dispute, at least one of which will continue to affect the relationship regardless of the impact of Abbott's letter. The first driver of the dispute is that Yudhoyono is both angry and dismayed that he, his wife and senior officials had been directly spied on. As a former army general, he was well aware of the vulnerability of mobile phones to intercepts, and he is unlikely to have conveyed particularly sensitive information using it.
But Yudhoyono has gone out of his way to befriend Australia, often to domestic criticism, and now feels personally betrayed. To fix this, a letter and perhaps even a phone call to Yudhoyono are now probably too little, too late. According to senior Indonesian political academic Professor Bahtiar Effendy, Abbott needs to get on a plane and talk this through face-to-face. He will probably also need to propose an intelligence code of conduct.
This then raises the second driver; Abbott's diplomatic skills. His comments in Parliament were seen to diminish the importance of the matter and thus entrenched a pre-existing antipathy from Yudhoyono. Abbott had already alienated Indonesia’s political leadership while in opposition, with his "turn back the boats" policy playing very poorly in Jakarta.
This was made worse during his September visit to Bali, when he showed up late for two functions and excluded the Indonesia media from a press conference. Yudhoyono was said to have made sure he did not sit next to Abbott at the APEC summit dinner.
Indonesia's media, insulted by their exclusion, now regard Abbott as fair game.
Moreover, Abbott's front-footed political style goes down poorly in Indonesia, where it is regarded as coarse. This "coarse" perception was made worse by government pollster Mark Textor tweeting "that bloke who looks like a 1970s Filipino porn star", understood as referring to Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa.
The third and now most important driver in the bilateral relationship is that Yudhoyono and his Democratic Party have been tracking poorly in polls and he is seen as a weak leader. Although he cannot stand for re-election in the presidential elections next year, he wants to anoint a successor. To do so, he needs to be seen to be strong. Standing up to Australia is, now, not just an easy option but a necessary one.
It's also necessary for the rest of the field of likely candidates in the elections. None are as well-disposed towards Australia as Yudhoyono has been and all have jumped on the nationalist, anti-Australia band-wagon.
Regardless of Abbott's letter to Yudhoyono, the negative perception of Australia will now not come off Indonesia's nationalist agenda. The bilateral relationship over the next 10 months ahead of Indonesia's elections will be, at best, cool.
Depending on the outcome of those elections, Australia's relationship with the growing regional economic and strategic power could turn even colder.
The current breakdown in diplomatic relations between Australia and Indonesia is close to -- or is -- the worst the relationship has been. There has been nothing of such damage to the relationship since Australia’s intervention in East Timor in 1999, when Australia sent in troops with the permission of the Indonesian government to address a problem resulting from the Indonesian government being at odds with its own military.
Military co-operation, support for Australia’s asylum seeker program and intelligence sharing has now been suspended by Indonesia, and there is not even a fig-leaf of support in Indonesia for Australia. The current spying issue is more damaging than the East Timor intervention, with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono feeling personally betrayed by a country he considered a friend.
The suspension of key bilateral activities has ended Indonesia’s reluctant support for Australia’s asylum seeker policy. It can be safely assumed that Indonesia will not be accepting back any boats for the foreseeable future.
But Indonesia’s response is unlikely to end there. Without an adequate response by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, there is likely to be the suspension of further activity between the two countries. Areas that are likely to be affected include trade arrangements and Indonesia’s support for Australia in regional forums such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, including the strategic ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).
An element of the current controversy reflects political point-scoring in Indonesia as actors jockey for position ahead of next year’s elections. However, there is also a very real sense of anger and dismay over the spying allegations. Many senior Indonesian figures have never entirely trusted Australia, and this issue has only confirmed their mistrust.
From Australia’s perspective, there has long been a quiet but very real concern that Indonesia’s next president, to be elected in September 2014, will be not nearly as well-disposed towards Australia. It was widely hoped that the strong relationship with Indonesia that existed until recently could be maintained in order to ensure that Australia goes into those uncharted bilateral waters in the best possible shape.
That option has now all but disappeared. Even if this affair can be settled down, there will remain a lingering sense of mistrust from Indonesia.
Australia’s best option at the moment is twofold. Abbott needs to fulsomely apologise to Yudhoyono privately. Yudhoyono might or might not choose to make public some or all of that apology, but that would ultimately be his call to make.
Abbott also needs say publicly that Australia apologises for the hurt and mistrust that has been caused by the allegations of spying, without formally confirming that such spying has or has not taken place. He also needs to say that Australia’s regional intelligence activities will be reviewed with the intent of ensuring that no further offence will be caused to Indonesia. Again, this will not require going into details.
This is what should have happened when the spying scandal first broke two weeks ago. Had this been said then, the current issue would have been nipped in the bud and the fallout would not now exist.
The question for the Australian government now is not whether it acts, but how quickly and precisely how to phrase the public component of the apology to Indonesia. Not to do so risks not just immediate difficulties, but could derail the relationship with Indonesia into the longer-term future.
Australia’s diplomatic relationship with Indonesia has gone from bad to worse following the latest damaging revelations about Australian spying on senior Indonesian political figures, including President Yudhoyono and his wife Ibu Ani. Indonesia is now expected to act on the matter, expelling Australian diplomats and suspending joint information gathering programs.
The most troubling aspect of this issue is the Australian government’s failure, so far, to attempt to neutralise the damage that is being caused to the relationship. This is despite Prime Minister Tony Abbott, describing Australia’s relationship with Indonesia as “all in all, our most important”.
Yet despite this affair now running over two weeks, there has been no action taken to settle it. Had the Australian government acted when the first spying claims were made, this latest issue of top level spying would have already largely been addressed.
However, Mr Abbott’s comments that all countries gather intelligence, though accurate, will be viewed as dismissive in Indonesia and adding insult to injury. This is at a time when Mr Abbott needs to apologise, in public, to the Indonesian leadership, and not as an unconcerned leader to the Australian public.
The revelation that Australia Defence Signals Directorate has tapped the phone of President Yudhoyono and his wife Ibu Ani is particularly embarrassing to Indonesia, given that President Yudhoyono has invested a great deal of political capital in the relationship. There have long been many politicians in Indonesia who have viewed Australia with a much more jaundiced eye than Yudhoyono. They will now be feeling vindicated, and Yudhoyono will have lost face.
With the Australian spying issue being played out in Indonesia against the backdrop of next year’s elections, Australia has further made itself an easy target for political point scoring. A strong and defensive sense of national pride has long characterised political debate within Indonesia, with Australia regularly singled out as a country with a history of offending that sensibility.
But even moderate political actors in Indonesia will feel compelled to take a strong stand against Australia. Not to do so will be seen domestically as having abandoned Indonesia’s sense of sovereignty.
In the short term, the expulsion of some diplomatic staff and the suspension of bilateral programs will cause problems, especially to Australia’s asylum seeker program. But the longer term fall-out could be at least as damaging.
Because Australia has not yet moved to assuage Indonesian concerns, Australian spying can be expected to resurface each time the issue of the bilateral relationship is raised in Indonesia. Each time a proposal is put forward about closer diplomatic, intelligence or strategic ties, the spying issue will be inserted as a consideration.
Australia will not, and probably cannot, substantially reduce its intelligence gathering activities in Indonesia. But it remains possible to at least give a public rhetorical semblance to a review of such activities. This would go a long way towards calming the growing anger that is being expressed in Jakarta.
Australia’s previously troubled relationship with Indonesia has, in recent years, been described as the best that it has ever been. It has been widely viewed as critical to secure the strength of that relationship as Indonesia heads into a new, post-election political environment. That intention, however, now appears to have been dashed.
At best, Australia can look to salvage what is left of the relationship. To do that, however, it must start taking public diplomatic steps in that direction.
Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is at one of its historic low points, despite claims to the contrary by Prime Minister Tony Abbott. What is unusual about this most recent contretemps with Indonesia, with which Australia has previously had several difficulties, is that, unlike in the past, the current problems are entirely a consequence of Australian policy.
Australia’s alleged spying on Indonesia is both bipartisan and largely necessary. But Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has not yet moved to allay concerns in Jakarta by saying Australia’s intelligence program will be reviewed and offensive activity ceased (even if it will not).
However, the Australian government’s handling of the asylum seeker issue has been purely a matter of domestic political choice. It is an "own goal" that was part of the planning for the game.
That policy is all but in tatters, following Indonesia refusing to readmit 63 asylum seekers bound for Australia. According to Indonesian authorities, this is the third such refusal to accept back asylum seekers; Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has finally acknowledged it was at least the second such rebuff, not having acknowledged previous problems in his less-than-frank weekly briefings on the asylum seeker issue.
Indonesia’s point-blank refusal to accept the asylum seekers on this more public occasion has raised real doubts about whether the government’s policy on turning back asylum seekers can work. If the government cannot turn back boats, as it said it would in opposition, it may now be forced to accept the same, much criticised policy as adopted by the former Labor government.
Indonesia’s Co-ordinating Minister for Legal Political and Security Affairs, Djoko Suyanto, is expected to soon formalise Indonesia’s permanent refusal to accept asylum seekers from Australian rescue vessels, other than in emergency situations. This would appear to end the government’s plan to return asylum seekers "when safe to do so". Indicating Indonesia’s growing frustration with Australia, on Friday, Djoko said:
"The Indonesian government never agreed to such wishes or policies of Australia. This has been conveyed since the time of Kevin Rudd, and there is no change of policy regarding asylum seekers wanting to go to Australia under the current Abbott government."
Following Djoko’s statement, the Australian government backed down on its push to have Indonesia accept the asylum seekers.
Indonesian Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro added to Indonesia’s public dismay over Australian asylum seeker policy by confirming that Indonesia had never agreed to asylum seekers being returned to Indonesia and that Australia should "send the asylum seekers to their detention centers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea and not to Indonesia".
Anger in Indonesia over Australia’s attempt to return the asylum seekers has further damaged relations already seriously strained over allegations of Australian spying in Indonesia. Indonesia’s presidential spokesman Teuku Faizasyah has again reconfirmed that spying on Indonesia is "unacceptable".
In response, he said that Indonesia "will take steps that cannot be disclosed to the public". Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has already identified co-operation on people smuggling and terrorism as areas that will be "reviewed".
The government’s closely controlled media management strategy also appears to be coming unstuck over these two issues, with Indonesian authorities either contradicting or providing alternative accounts of matters that the Australian government is only reluctantly revealing.
The issue of Australia spying on Indonesia is far from resolved, and the asylum seeker issue is now front and centre. No doubt, where Indonesia is concerned, the government must be hoping that bilateral policy issues don’t come in threes.