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.
There are a number of ways to interpret Opposition leader Tony Abbott’s failure to raise his asylum seeker ‘tow back’ proposal in his meeting with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, but none of them are positive. In short, the ‘town back’ proposal was – and in so far as it continues to be defended by Opposition speakers – remains a policy disaster.
In a political contest increasingly characterised by who has the metaphorically hairiest chest, ‘Tow Back Tony’ has been a tough-guy par excellence. Not only had Mr Abbott taken the hardest line on asylum seekers, he went that one step further by not just saying that a government under his leadership would implement asylum seeker deterrent policies but it would physically take asylum seeker boats back to the territorial waters they came from.
From a sleepy backwater, the South Pacific has been catapulted into the diplomatic limelight, with the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in the Cook Islands playing host not just to Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, but to US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and a large delegation from China. All of a sudden, the Pacific island states – a mere scattering of specks in a vast blue ocean – are at centre stage.
It seems that no matter how cordial Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is or how much it is desired to be so, perennial issues continue that call aspects of that relationship into question. Critically, the gap between how Australia official engages with Indonesia and how that engagement is more widely viewed within Australia continues to test the relationship.