Last week I admitted to being a bit baffled by the Indonesian Government's decision to make such a big deal about a minor Australian news story on electronic eavesdropping from Australian diplomatic facilities. If anything, the Indonesians have escalated the dispute since then, with Foreign Minister Natalegawa (pictured) saying the row may threaten cooperation on people smuggling, and some Indonesian MPs taking the opportunity to create mischief.
Given that the sort of intelligence activity described in the original Fairfax story is common knowledge, why is Indonesia making a fuss? A run-down of the various theories, some of which have appeared in the media and others which I have heard privately:
1. Softening Australia up: this one is courtesy of former Lowy Institute Executive Director Michael Wesley in The Guardian:
Natelagawa, who studied in Australia, has probably watched the odd State of Origin game. He knows the first 10 minutes of the match are known as the “softening up period” – a stanza of ferocious physicality in which each side tries to cow the opposition into a disadvantageous state of mind. Right now, there's a new government in Canberra, and neighbouring governments are likely to be keen to test its mettle. The odd diplomatic jab can give a better sense of what can be expected from a new government than years of polite cocktail discussions.
2. SBY has a grudge: this theory holds that, although Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa is taking the lead on this issue, it is at the direct instruction of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, although his motives are unclear.
3. Natalegawa is making up with his boss: this theory holds that SBY was displeased that Natalegawa allowed a transcript of his New York meeting with Julie Bishop to be leaked (it was the leaking that upset him, not the damage to the Australia relationship). Natalegawa has seized on the spying issue so that he can appear statesmanlike and get back in SBY's good books.
4. The domestic audience: as reader Neil Watson said last week, 'We can expect more of this in the run up to next year's Presidential election. I'd suggest SBY is also pre-empting the xenophobes in the parliament and 'think tanks' who will be demanding firm measure. It is also a diversion from the corruption allegations surrounding the Democrat Party.'
5. The colonial legacy: Ian Brownlie, in his reader riposte earlier this week, argued that 'the particular factor in Indonesia's case is the knee-jerk sense of victimhood from exploitation by wealthier, stronger outsiders seen subconsciously or consciously as neo-colonialist invaders. The Germans may admit that spying is something they also do; for Indonesians, it can only be something that others do to them.'
6. Last, let's not ignore the possibility that Indonesia is genuinely annoyed with Australia. It is one thing to know that spying goes on, but another to be confronted with specific facts about foreigners snooping on you in your own capital.
Photo by Flickr user United Nations Geneva.