In mid-November of this year it was revealed that Australia’s intelligence services have been extensively monitoring the government of Indonesia, in particular bugging the phone of its President Bamban Yudhoyono and his inner circle. The information was leaked from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and pickup by major Australian newspapers. Australia and Indonesia have enjoyed close relationships in the last decade, despite some setbacks (a disastrous live cattle dispute in 2011) and much of the credit should be attributed to the impressive Mr. Yudhoyono. This close relationship is now in jeopardy because the newly elected Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott seems to have failed to grasp even the basics of foreign policy.
Spying scandals are nothing new; countries are routinely caught spying on their neighbors, enemies and even allies. This behavior is perhaps best exemplified by the Russian Proverb “trust, but verify”. Indeed, these incidents are so commonplace that one would hope national leaders could navigate them with little difficulty. This particular invasive spying took place before the current government was in power, so its resolution should have been easy. All Mr. Abbott had to do was publicly announce he was unaware of the spying, that he was appalled it had taken place, and that Australian intelligence agencies would be ordered to stop it, and then continue spying as usual. Instead he flat-out refused to apologize saying “The first duty of every government is to protect their county…that’s why every government gathers information”. This was a mistake.
This is not to say there is nothing to admire about Prime Minister Abbott’s stance, after all he is honesty describing the reality of international politics. Of course Australia spies on Indonesia, it is the country’s largest neighbor and the nation’s stability and goals are of credible import. Indeed, it would have been incredible if Australia were not spying on Indonesia (and despite the invasion of privacy, it is impressive Australia was able to gain access to the Prime Minister’s telephone). Indonesia knows this, Australia knows this, there is not a knowledge disconnect between the two countries. But by outright refusing to apologize and effectively telling Indonesia to ‘suck it up’ Abbott forgot the rules of the game and in doing so blundered right as Indonesian support for Australia’s border security was most needed. The Coalition government was elected on the basis of a tough immigration policy against ‘boat people’, refugees and immigrants travelling to Australia by boat and usually originating in Afghanistan or Sri Lanka. Typically Indonesia is their last stop before attempting the dangerous crossing to Australia, as such Indonesian cooperation is essential to “stopping the boats”. By suspending all cooperation with Australia Indonesia effectively signaled a carte blanche to the people smugglers working to transport these refugees to the Australian mainland.
Fortunately after Indonesia halted all cooperation with Australia, Prime Minister Abbott caught the hint: he needed to mollify Yudhoyono, and quickly. A letter explaining the incident, and stating that Australia would never work against the interests of Indonesia was quickly sent to Mr. Yudhoyon’s desk, and while cooperation will not resume until the two countries agree to an unspecified ‘rules of behavior’ the relationship’s downward spiral has been averted. Hopefully this incident will convince Mr. Abbott to improve his foreign policy strategy. It is just a shame it almost came at the price of a friendly Indonesia.