Indonesia and Australia: Deteriorating Diplomacy
Protest at the Australian embassy in Jakarta
Image Credit: REUTERS/Beawiharta

Indonesia and Australia: Deteriorating Diplomacy


Diplomatic relations between Jakarta and Canberra have slumped to lows not witnessed in more than a decade, with Australia’s refusal to provide a sufficient explanation for the bugging of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s phone threatening the future of productive relations. While an apology may take the heat out of terse relations, it is clear that all is not well between the two nations.

The tipping point for an standoff came last week, when documents provided to The Guardian Australia and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation by Edward Snowden detailed the Australian Defence Signals Directorate’s extensive surveillance activities in Jakarta and the interception of Yudhoyono’s phone calls in August 2009. These revelations followed reports in Fairfax newspapers in late October, which detailed how Australia’s embassy in Jakarta serves as a signal base for espionage acts across the archipelago.

Paul Barratt, former Secretary to the Department of Defence, told The Diplomat that the ongoing fallout is one of the most challenging diplomatic issues for Australian-Indonesian relations since the East Timor intervention in 1999. “Relations are very testing because of the disrespect shown to Indonesia in the Australian public discourse,” said Mr. Barrett. “We need to start treating Indonesia like grownups and start behaving like grownups ourselves.”

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His views are echoed by former Liberal Party leader John Hewson, who told The Diplomat that “there seems to be little doubt that monitoring the mobiles of the Indonesian President and his wife was a step too far.” He added that “the Indonesian-Australian relationship is very important, and is very important to both sides. In this sense, the issue can only be pushed so far.”

But unlike the phone-bugging revelations that rocked relations between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Barack Obama, which were largely dissolved with an apology and a promise to cease such acts in future, the refusal of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott to apologize – with attrition equaling an admission of guilt – has provoked a wave of diplomatic and public retaliations in Indonesia.

After Abbott addressed the Parliament on Thursday afternoon, Yudhoyono took to Twitter to express his frustration to his 4 million-plus followers. “Today I instructed Minister Marty Natalegawa to recall Indonesia’s Ambassador to Australia. This is a firm diplomatic response. (…) I also regret the statement of Australian Prime Minister that belittled this tapping matter on Indonesia, without any remorse.”

But it didn’t stop there. The Indonesian president temporarily suspended the intelligence and military cooperation with Australia so vital to Abbott’s election promise to “stop the boats” that bring asylum seekers to Australia by water, and threatened to cease further cooperation unless Abbott provided a sufficient explanation. By Friday evening, the gates the Australian Embassy on Jalan Rasuna Said were stained with eggshells hurled by protestors from the Islamic Defender Front (FPI) and Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), who earlier burnt images of Abbott and the Australian flag.

Indonesia is certainly not immune from criticism of foreign espionage. According to Dr. Hewson, espionage is always the elephant in the diplomatic room. “Everybody does it to some degree, and nobody wants to talk about it, especially if it becomes a matter of public allegations and discussion,” he said. “However, Indonesia doesn’t come to this issue with clean hands either, having admitted previously to having “spied” on Australia during the East Timor crisis.”

In 2004, Indonesia’s retiring Intelligence Chief Abdullah Mahmud Hendropriyono admitted on Australian television that Jakarta had bugged the Australian embassy in Jakarta and tapped the phones of Australian politicians. Since last week’s revelations, Yudhoyono has also moved to create the Central Intelligence Committee, to be administered by the State Intelligence Agency, which will open new branch offices and make foreign spies a priority target.

But it would be remiss to blame deteriorating relations exclusively on the espionage allegations, media commentary, or public protest. This fallout is instead the culmination of a year of diplomatic frustrations between Canberra and Jakarta, with both nations posturing for respective national elections and politicians often defaulting to megaphone diplomacy rather than nuanced discussion.

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