There is general agreement, on The Interpreter at least, that the newly signed 'Australia-Indonesia Joint Understanding on a Code of Conduct' is good news for Australia's relations with Indonesia. It certainly brings with it a sense of relief that the nine-month spat between the two countries has finally come to end, and that diplomatic relations can confidently resume.
However, there are a few things to be learned about the dynamics of the Australia-Indonesia relationship in the signing of this document, and the events that preceded it. First, we can take a look at that verbose title which Sam Roggeveen brought to our attention. Sam wrote that Australia's preference was for a 'Joint Understanding' and Indonesia's for a 'Code of Conduct', and so the authors of the document simply combined the two.
But the two titles mean different things.
As military ethicist Matthew Beard wrote in his analysis of the agreement in The Guardian, a 'code of conduct' is a document that determines the 'legal and ethical responsibilities' of one serving in a professional capacity, say an intelligence officer. When everyday moral codes may not apply in a professional situation, a code of conduct provides a more specific set of ethical boundaries to work within. This is what Indonesia was asking Australia to consider; not necessarily an end to spying, but a line in intelligence operations over which both sides would agree not to cross. A 'joint understanding', on the other hand, is a less formal document that indicates common intentions on a particular matter.
What Australia and Indonesia ended up with was more 'Joint Understanding' than 'Code of Conduct', with each agreeing not to use intelligence to harm the interests of the other, and promising to enhance intelligence cooperation between the two. It does draw a line that shouldn't be crossed — that is, using intelligence in a way that would harm the interests of the other — but it's not really specific about what those interests are, or how they might be harmed.
Yohanes Sulaiman, a security analyst at Indonesia's National Defence University, wrote for The Conversation that under the new agreement, 'wiretapping the president's wife is out of the question'. But is that really the case? Arguably, Australia could continue to justify the action so long as it did not harm the interests of Indonesia. Perhaps more difficult to justify would be Australia's alleged offer to the US of information regarding a trade dispute between Jakarta and Washington. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa commented at the time that he found the claimed connection between the dispute and Australia's security interests 'mind boggling'.
Such activities may in future be found to be in breach of the new agreement. But that does not guarantee they won't continue. As Stephen Grenville wrote on The Interpreter this week, intelligence decisions are likely to remain in the hands of those 'who got us into trouble in the first place', meaning that any loyalty to Indonesia seems likely to be overridden by Australia's loyalty to the 'Five-Eyes' intelligence alliance involving Australia, New Zealand, the US, Canada and the UK. In other words, for all the rhetoric of Australia's commitment to engaging in Asia, behind closed doors its allegiance apparently remains firmly with the West.
The same conclusion was drawn by Fairfax's Indonesia correspondent Michael Bachelard (nominated for a Lowy Institute media award last month). Bachelard's piece on the signing of the agreement ran with the strikingly combative headline 'Australia wins the spy war with Indonesia'. The wording appears to be an editor's choice, since Bachelard himself tweeted the story with a much softened 'Australia "wins" stoush with Indonesia over spying'. The original headline didn't make too big a splash in the Indonesian media, but did earn us another withering comment from Natalegawa: 'If they (Australians) want to see it as a win, then please, they can go ahead and keep dreaming like that,' he told local media last Friday.
Most telling of Australia's priorities in the past nine months was the way the spying row was used as an opportunity to act unilaterally against asylum seeker arrivals, as observed by both Bachelard and Sulaiman. With diplomatic relations suspended, Australia was essentially free to pursue its agenda without consulting the neighbour. The Australian Government went ahead with Operation Sovereign Borders despite Indonesia's explicit rejection of the idea, and further damaged relations by allegedly straying into Indonesia's territorial waters.
The new 'Joint Understanding on a Code of Conduct' offers a clean break from the sour relations of the past year, starting from a basis of agreed ethics and intentions. The outcome may have been a favourable one for Australian intelligence, but gloating over this fact should probably be kept to a minimum, and more deeply reflected upon. While Indonesia is said to be concerned with 'saving face' by patching up relations, Australia should perhaps be a little more concerned about 'losing face' from its hubristic (or is that sombong?) handling of an important relationship.
Photo courtesy of DFAT.