Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Spying row: Why Indonesia is tougher on Canberra than on Washington

Spying row: Why Indonesia is tougher on Canberra than on Washington

australia-indonesia relations snowden spying

Australia has copped the ire and sarcasm of Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa over fresh spying allegations reported in the New York Times last weekend. Meanwhile, the US, Australia’s alleged partner in the reported espionage, has emerged unscathed.

As Natalegawa welcomed US Secretary of State John Kerry to Jakarta this week, he reportedly apologised for even broaching the topic in bilateral talks between the two countries.

Australia, on the other hand, received a dose of the minister's sardonic wit in response to Prime Minister Tony Abbott's comments that the intelligence was gathered in the interest of Australia's national security. 'I find that a bit mind-boggling and a bit difficult   how I can connect or reconcile discussion about shrimps and how it impacts on Australia's security', he commented on Monday.

The New York Times report claimed that the Australian Signals Directorate had offered information to the US National Security Agency on correspondence between the Indonesian Government and a US law firm representing the country in a trade dispute with the US. Recent trade disputes between the US and Indonesia have involved the export of clove cigarettes and shrimp.

The report also claimed that Australia and the US run a joint signals intelligence facility in Alice Springs, with eyes on Papua New Guinea and Indonesia among other countries. The claims were made on the basis of documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

So why has Australia received a much harsher response from Indonesia over the report than the US? In the Indonesian press, Natalegawa has pointed to a vast difference in attitude between Canberra and Washington. [fold]

'The difference is that the US is already conducting a review, so there have been concrete steps taken to address the problem. Meanwhile, Australia has done nothing at all', Natalegawa was quoted as saying on news portal, referring to efforts to review intelligence-gathering protocols.

He further commented that Australia has been inconsistent in responding to the spying allegations, on the one hand denying the charges in talks with Indonesia, while on the other hand bragging to the Australian public about its intelligence activities.
In Kompas newspaper, Natalegawa's message was even more direct: 'The point is that Australia needs to make a decision. Is Indonesia to be regarded as a friend or as an enemy?'

Kerry's visit to Indonesia this week indicated that Washington, at least, is keen on becoming Indonesia's close friend. Kerry visited Indonesia's largest mosque, took selfies with students, and assured Jakarta that the US was taking intelligence-gathering reforms 'very seriously'. 

Washington is committed to its 'pivot' towards Asia, at least in rhetoric, and is making the effort to engage in the region through gestures such as Kerry's tour. Meanwhile, Australia has all but shut down communications with Indonesia, perhaps accepting estimates that diplomatic relations will be put on hold until a new Indonesian president is sworn in in October.

Australia's own Asia 'pivot', the Australia in the Asian Century white paper, has been shelved by the Abbott Government and the latest spying revelations show that even with the policy in place, Australia’s loyalties remain with Western nations over Asian ones.

'This case is damaging because it looks as if Australia has made a choice between friendly behaviour towards Indonesia or friendly behaviour towards the United States and it's opted for the latter', Australian National University Indonesia expert Greg Fealy told the ABC this week.

Australia's unilateral action in turning back suspected asylum seeker boats towards Indonesia, while occasionally straying into its territorial waters, has further hardened Indonesia's opinion of its neighbour.

Upon hearing Australia’s claims that it had stopped the flow of boats completely, Natalegawa commented, 'Congratulations if they really see this as something worth celebrating. But look at the price'.

For Australia, the price of disengaging with Indonesia will go beyond its reputation for respecting human rights and international law. According to comments by vice presidential advisor Dewi Fortuna Anwar to Jakarta media on Monday, ignoring the importance of Southeast Asia's biggest economy will also affect trade and regional security, especially as President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono steps out of office later this year, .

'We don’t know who will be president in Indonesia later this year, but there is a possibility that it won’t be someone so open to the West and so understanding of Australia', she said.

Photo courtesy of United States Government Work.

You may also be interested in