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I Spy Jakarta versus Australia

November 21, 2013

I Spy Jakarta versus Australia

More theatre than anything


Friendlier times

Mark Scott, head of the ABC (Australian Broadcast), might be wondering what has come of his decision to publish the Top Secret papers. In the recent Senate Estimate Committee he claimed:

“We’re seeing a big international debate on intelligence activities in this digital age, what information can be procured, what info can be shared.”

“I think the story yesterday centrally went to that, and therefore I think it was an important story that should have been told and that’s why we told it.”

Did Mark Scott consider that the publication of revelations that Australia was spying on the Indonesian president and his wife would explode in such ferocity?

Upset, but for how long?

Understandably Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is publically offended and angry of the revelations that Australia has been listening to his phone calls. It is understandable but the reality is that spying goes on all the time. It has been going on since the dawn of civilisation and will continue to go on for as long as we still have a civilisation.

The revelations are embarrassing for all involved. For the Australian Prime Minister, it is an unwanted international crisis that he must deal with. More galling is that the alleged spying took place in the reign of the previous government and yet he is still being lumbered with the blame. For the Indonesian President, he is facing a public humiliation in the lead up to an election. President Bambang Yudhoyono cannot afford to look weak at this. The fact that his wife was spied on makes the humiliation even worse and personalizes the issue.

Not so long ago a previous Indonesian regime came to the brink of war with Australia when East Timor won its independence. Tensions between the two nations have been tense from the early 1970s when 4 Australian were secretly executed on the eve of Indonesia invading and colonizing East Timor until the more pro-Australian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was elected. Revelations of spying on the best ally Australia has had in Indonesia gives further humiliation to a President who will be blamed for trusting its southern neighbours. The nationalist have already gathered to protest and burn Australia flags in Indonesia. Hence we have this very loud, very embarrassing and very public diplomatic crisis between Australia and Indonesia.

The public display of offence by Indonesia was inevitable as soon as this crisis became a front page news story. The public display of anger that has seen the suspension of: military ties; cooperation on the boat people crisis and the recall of the Indonesia ambassador to Australia we destined to occur as a result. More public noise, hand wringing and demands of apology are going to continue until something makes the story fade away.

It may seem odd but I do not believe that this crisis will last more than a few weeks. As sensational as this story sound it will blow over in good time. Prime Minister Tony Abbott will not be forced to apologies publically for the spying incident nor will President Bambang Yudhoyono cut all diplomatic ties with Australia. What is occurring, has more to do with street theatre than it has to do with a permanent diplomatic rift between nations. The Indonesian President must play his part as the betrayed friend to his own domestic audience or he would be deemed weak and impotent. Prime Minister Abbott must also play his part and not prostrate himself publically to a foreign nation or he himself will be forever begging forgiveness over this issue. What both side in this public farce must do is precisely what they are doing now. They must play their part on the stage until controversy is exhausted and public in both countries are so sick of it that they want to move on. After that happen it will be back to business as usual.

Meanwhile in the background the diplomatic communications will be vastly different to what is playing out in public. Tony Abbott is handling the crisis correctly by trying to avoid the spectical of have a slinging match over the media. So too President Yudhoyono is acting in a responsible way sending a letter to the Australian Prime Minister seeking an explanation for the phone tapping activity n 2009. This is a far cry from severing of relations and indicates that there is little advantage in dragging this crisis out further.

Indonesia has far more to lose in maintaining this crisis than Australia. The past activities of the Indonesian armed forces in East Timor can always be thrown into media to stir the pot further. The millions of dollars in aid that Australia sends Indonesia each year can also be put at risk and the mutual trade agreement that bolster each other’s economy are just important.

Personal offence over spying revelation will pass. Humiliation over having phones tapped begs the question of why the Indonesians did not have a form of secure communication when it was public knowledge that the Echelon electronic spy network was in existence for years. Chances are the Indonesians knew going. Only the fact that it became public turned it into a crisis.

Editorial Comment:

I give this a maximum of two weeks before Tony Abbott and Bambang Yudhoyono are sharing drinks and laughing about old times. Yudhoyono will be in stronger position coming into the next election because stood up to Australia and Abbott will be in a stronger position in Australia because he did not panic with his first real crisis as the Australian Prime Minister.

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