Australia has been caught with its spying pants down, and doesn’t know where to go. This is particularly so with Indonesia, which has now gone on the diplomatic offensive against its delinquent neighbour. On Monday, Indonesia’s foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, announced that he had recalled Indonesia’s ambassador to Canberra for “consultations” over revelations that Australia had made use of its embassies to conduct surveillance operations, in cooperation with the U.S. National Security Agency, against Jakarta.
Such allegations went further – Australia had gone so far as to target the phone lines of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and other officials.
The show retained a certain degree of low comedy. Washington has been left out in the latest picture of Indonesian indignation – after all, the intelligence operation is very much a U.S. guided affair, extensive, pervasive and, it has turned out, undiscriminating. This suggests that officials in Jakarta are wanting to target the weakest link: its clumsy albeit affluent neighbour. “We have downgraded the level of relations between Indonesia and Australia,” suggested Natalegawa. “Like a faucet, it is turned down.”
The reaction from the Abbott government has not been convincing. For one thing, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has taken a leaf out of his Indonesian counterpart’s diplomatic book: avoid that rather obese elephant in the room. “Australia should not be expected to apologise for the steps we take to protect our country now or in the past, any more than other governments should be expected to apologise for the similar steps that they have taken.”
Such language suggests that Canberra, holding closely to Washington’s coattails, has no friends in international relations but poorly calculated interests. There are no protocols: everything and anything, is fair game before the surveillance vultures. And the issue is not that no surveillance should take place. The problem here is a notable lack of limits. The NSA empire has nabbed all before it.
This affair also demonstrates the fundamental problem as to what Indonesia is dealing with. Canberra is Washington’s pious mouthpiece. As Australia will wait for hell to freeze over before compromising its links with U.S. security, the need be to be tight-lipped is considered paramount. The corollary of this is unmistakable spinelessness, something Canberra’s pseudo establishment does with some skill.
Indonesian politicians know this, and also know that, to silence the vassal, you need to go to the lord of the manor. The Obama administration’s absence suggests that Indonesia has something else up its sleeve. That sleeve is filled with one obvious suggestion: elections. What is good for the electoral goose is good for the electoral gander.
Australian politicians were indignant about Indonesian prevarication on the issue of Canberra’s refugee policies, something the Abbott coalition was willing to play upon before the last Australian election. Indonesian politicians will in turn focus on the same issue in reverse, and point out such matters of disagreement as the issue of the treatment of live imported Australian cattle.
The danger with such approaches of reticence is that Australia risks pushing its relationship with Indonesia, not so much into the corner as overboard. It is Canberra’s largest neighbour, and thirteenth largest trading partner. Its current leader is warm to Australia. But when one is speaking to a vassal, expectations should be low. Australia’s cultural insularity to Indonesia remains entrenched.
Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, before he returned to warm the back benches of parliament, suggested that the Coalition’s approach to Indonesia involved “a risk of diplomatic conflict and… you’ve got to be mindful of where conflict leads you.” Promoting himself as the steely cool customer, something he was demonstrably not when in the portfolios he presided over, Rudd suggested in June this year that, “You really need to have some pretty cool hands on the tiller when you are dealing with Indonesian relations.”
Cool hand Rudd, it must be remembered, was not indifferent to spying on Indonesia’s leaders while prime minister. That, it can be said with some assuredness, is a truly bi-partisan policy.
Former Australian diplomat Tony Kevin has taken aim at the Australian policy of reticence on the subject of spying on friends. “Edward Snowden’s revelations of systematic and routinised five-power (U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and NZ) electronic spying on friendly government leaders and politicians creates a new policy environment in which ‘neither confirm nor deny’ no longer works as a policy response” (Eureka Street, Nov 19).
So, we have the finest contrasts in Australian-Indonesian relations – those in Jakarta are to be treated with velvet gloves, given that they are difficult and prone to archaic authoritarianism, perhaps even extremism; or they are to be ignored in public addresses when it comes to matters of espionage. This is the tariff Australian officials pay for sitting at Washington’s imperial dinner table: neuroses on how to formulate coherent, cooperative responses with the world’s largest Muslim state.
Concrete, and immediate consequences, have followed. Indonesia’s intelligence chief Norman Marciano sought a “temporary termination of cooperation on intelligence exchanges and information sharing” (Jakarta Post, Nov 20). Joint exercises between Indonesia and Australia “either for army, navy air force or a combination” have also been terminated.
The loss of cooperation in intelligence will certainly hamper the Abbott government’s demagogic asylum policy, and its attempt to repel what it sees as an unwarranted invasion of Australia’s girt by sea. It needs Indonesian cooperation to fulfil such manic fantasies and wants to know what its neighbour is thinking. The further puncture initiated by espionage revelations has sealed a devastating approach. It is actions like that suggest not so much that politics is the art of the possible as the art of the misguided idiotic.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. He ran for the Australian Senate with Julian Assange for the WikiLeaks Party. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org