Australia’s Strained Relationship with Indonesia about to get Uglier
The following article is by Bunn Nagara, a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia….
INDONESIAN OFFICIALS TO BRIEFED DIRECTLY FROM SNOWDEN
Suddenly, a queue seems to be forming in various secret locations in Russia for foreign nationals to meet American NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
At first these visits were of a personal nature, comprising family and admirers who wished him well. One such visit was by some former US intelligence officials on behalf of the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence to award Snowden a medal.
Like many of Snowden’s fans around the world, including in the US itself, Snowden’s guests are among radicals, liberals and conservatives who value his personal risks in exposing illegal and unethical activity by US spies.
Then Brazilian government officials wanted to meet Snowden to learn about NSA spying activities on Brazil. Other countries the US spied on directly or indirectly were mostly friendly or ally nations including Chile, Colombia, France, Germany, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Thailand and Venezuela.
Next, German officials wanted to meet Snowden to find out more about these US breaches of privacy, protocol, security and law. Germany wants Snowden to testify in Berlin.
Now Indonesian officials want to meet Snowden. He has so far agreed to these requests and is likely to do so again.
Russia had granted Snowden temporary asylum and has since helped to maintain the secrecy of his whereabouts for his own safety. He is still a fugitive from the US government which is hounding him on espionage charges.
This week Russia agreed to the request by Indonesian officials to meet Snowden. Russian parliamentary leader Nikolai Levichev, in Jakarta during the week, confirmed that position on Thursday.
A wide swathe of Indonesian public opinion is incensed by Australia for allowing its embassy in Jakarta to be used in spying. The anti-Australia sentiment sweeping Indonesia is as evident at street level and public rallies as it is in diplomatic circles and Jakarta’s corridors of power.
Indonesian anger at Australia, now raging strongly and on multiple fronts, resulted directly from Snowden’s leaks.
It was then learned that the Australian Signals Directorate had tapped the phones of Indonesian President Susilo Yudhoyono and First Lady Ani Yudhoyono, as well as those of eight Indonesian government ministers and officials.
Australia may dismiss Indonesian fury as the typical rants of a Third World country. Yet despite such appearances, the Indonesian situation is not untypical of aggrieved countries in general.
Germany, another open, democratic country and a friend of the US – as well as being a developed Western country – also found that the personal cellphone of leader Angela Merkel had been tapped, and protested similarly. Mexico learned that the same befell the personal email of former President Felipe Calderón, a close US ally.
Relations between Jakarta and Canberra are now said to be the worst in 14 years. It therefore serves as a case study of sorts.
Like the other countries targeted by this global spying network, Indonesia is the victim rather than the aggressor. Furthermore it had done nothing against Australia (or the US), with no spying activities of its own to any comparable degree, to deserve such shoddy treatment.
Indonesia is also a sovereign and democratic nation that had tried to maintain good relations with Australia, in hopes that its efforts would be reciprocated. It has since discovered that its faith had been misplaced.
Australia and its apologists are not without their own arguments and responses, however. But so far these have not done Canberra any due justice.
A common Australian response has been that Indonesian protesters are ignorant, delusional and highly strung people with no case to make in their protests. Official and non-official Australian responses have been insulting in varying degrees.
Some have commented on the Indonesians’ poor English as expressed in their protest placards. Others have called the Indonesian demonstrations rent-a-crowd affairs, cynically manipulated by unseen hands with ulterior motives.
One argument says that since spying is practised by virtually all countries, all spying activities should be acceptable. That amounts to saying that it is all right to rob a neighbour because crime exists in the neighbourhood.
At the official level, Prime Minister Tony Abbott offered no apology or remorse. One of his party strategists even said that an Indonesian official, widely believed to be Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, resembled a “1970s Filipino porn star”.
Mark Textor then apologised, but denied he was referring to Marty. Since the Indonesian official he described was unnamed, and few if any shared his experience and insights of the Philippine porn industry, it became a slippery insult to protest against.
Canberra would be shortchanging itself if it thought this controversy would soon blow over. A minor fuss would dissipate within days, but over the week this has instead grown in scope and intensity.
Jakarta first suspended bilateral cooperation in military exercises, intelligence exchanges and efforts against human trafficking. While Indonesian demands for an apology and an undertaking that Australia stop its spying activities remain unanswered, Jakarta announced that it would stop cooperation in restricting migrant flows to Australia.
Susilo continues to review reports from government agencies about areas where cooperation may be withdrawn. Marty calls this “turning off the tap by degrees.”
Although full bilateral cooperation will eventually resume, it will not come before a full and satisfactory apology from Australia. Indonesians saw how President Obama did not hesitate to apologise to Merkel, so they ask why Abbott cannot do the same with Susilo.
A swift and early apology works better than a late and reluctant one. But any apology is still better than none.
Australian policymakers would do well to observe the trend against obstinate recalcitrance that tries to defend spying on friends.
After Obama’s apology, US Secretary of State John Kerry publicly admitted that US spying had gone too far. Senate Intelligence Committee chairperson Dianne Feinstein followed this with critical comments on NSA activities after having defended them.
Germany had earlier rejected an asylum request from Snowden but popular sentiment now seems to shift his way after Bonn’s request for his cooperation. There are growing calls in France for granting him asylum.
Among ordinary Australians, there are both increasing criticisms of spying operations and support for whistleblowers like Snowden. Former senior officials have also voiced sympathy for Indonesia’s position.
Abbott has promised a “swift, full and courteous” reply to Susilo’s demand for an apology and an explanation. Only the terms and extent of that response need to be worked out.
At stake in bilateral relations are stemming the tide of migrants to Australia, a top policy concern for Canberra; negotiations on an economic partnership agreement; and two-way trade that reached US$10.2bil (RM32.8bil) last year.
Meanwhile, despite growing pressure, Abbott and his Liberal Party have shown reluctance in issuing any apology to Indonesia. This is even when the spying controversy focuses on a period in 2009 when the Labor Party was in office.
Abbott’s indirect defence of a Labor government’s activities amounts to an endorsement. It reveals as hollow former Labor officials’ criticisms of Abbott now.
It also exposes the common ground between Australia’s major parties on such issues as spying on a friendly neighbour.
It signals that future governments of whichever party are unlikely to differ much in their activities on other countries.