Australia–Indonesia relations: steady, steady …
20 Nov 2013|

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang YudhoyonoAfter this week, Prime Minister Tony Abbott might be forgiven for wanting to revise his ‘more Jakarta and less Geneva’ mantra. (More Wellington, anyone?) The apparent leaking of the Australian Signal’s Directorate information about Indonesian leadership communications is clearly a non-trivial matter. It’ll take some time for the bilateral relationship to get back on track and matters potentially could still get worse. Amid the hype and endless commentary, what lessons should we take away from the experience?

First, as much as Australia wants strong and close relations with Indonesia, this won’t be easy to achieve. There’s little ballast in the relationship; economic and investment links are alarmingly small, people-to-people ties are limited and popular perceptions often negative. The media of both countries bait each other with huge enjoyment. The key driver of relations is government, public service and military engagement and these ties can rapidly warm or cool depending on the political breeze. To do better than this rather bleak picture we need to grow the Canberra–Jakarta link into a much broader partnership: ‘more business and less bureaucracy’, please Mr Abbott.

Second, as we’ve known all along, all politics is domestic. SBY’s initial tweets were in Bahasa and shaped for a domestic audience. Marty Natalegawa’s distinctively unhelpful media comments are widely seen to be positioning him for the post-2014 election when he will lose his sponsor, President Yudhoyono. In Australia, serving Labor politicians are keeping a low-profile, appropriately so given when the spying was alleged to take place. Minor parties are playing their duly appointed role by being outraged and calling for enquiries.

Third, the truth is no defence. Prime Minister Abbott’s comments in Parliament have been remarkable precisely because of their truthfulness:

In the past 24 hours there have been calls for Australia to detail our intelligence operations and to apologise for them. …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. Importantly, in Australia’s case, we use all our resources, including information, to help our friends and allies, not to harm them. Similarly, Australia should not be expected to detail what we do to protect our country any more than other governments should be expected to detail what they do to protect theirs. Others should ask of us no more than they are prepared to do themselves.

This is perhaps a little straight for the world of international relations, but it’s surely preferable to the bland denials we’ve heard from some, including Mr Natalegawa: ‘Well I have news for you. We don’t do it’. Thanks for that clarification, Minister. But somehow Mr Abbott needs to find a way to take the sting out of Indonesia’s hurt feelings. SBY’s tweets shows he sees this as a personal slight, which probably needs to be fixed in a personal way between him and our PM.

Fourth, the media loves a good crisis and will do its best to keep the story running. Particularly amusing is the contrast between the page one shock stories about spying allegations and the editorial and opinion piece commentaries, many of which, in a world weary tone, suggest that there’s nothing new or shocking in the revelations. The most surprising intervention has been from the former foreign minister Bob Carr. Only three months ago Mr Carr was carrying the heavy responsibility of oversighting one of Australia’s intelligence agencies and had on his desk the pick of reporting from the five eyes community. While that might encourage a certain reticence, it hasn’t stopped Mr Carr from implicitly criticising his colleague John Faulkner, who was Defence Minister and in charge of the then DSD during the time Snowden’s documents are said to originate from. Mr Carr’s urging of an apology from the current government for events that reportedly took place during his own tenure is, well, a bit rich.

Finally, managing intelligence is hard. The US, Australia and others will have to ask how it was possible that a ‘system administrator’ working as a contractor for three months, could have access to classified material, including of the type recently reported here. That’s a reasonable question, but before we get too outraged, it’s worth remembering that a key criticism of intelligence agency practice after the 9/11 attacks was over the failure to disseminate information. Getting the balance right between information access and control will be a critical point of debate for some time to come.

There may still be some way to go before the Canberra–Jakarta spat bottoms out, but it’s unlikely to reach the depths of unhappiness that occurred in the immediate aftermath of the East Timor crisis in 1999. Then, Jakarta’s ire over our part in East Timor’s independence put the relationship into the deep freeze for some years. Prime Minister John Howard turned the corner toward better relations when he chose at attend President Yudhoyono’s inauguration in October of 2004. This was capped off with a generous Australian aid response after the terrible tsunami at the end of that year. Mr Howard took a big and unexpected step towards closer cooperation and it paid off. We should look out for something similar in coming months.

Peter Jennings is the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of Twitter user @SBYudhoyono.