Given that spying is the second oldest profession, it would seem somewhat redundant for Tony Abbott to apologise to Indonesia for the Australian Signals Directorate’s eavesdropping on the conversations of the President, first lady and several cabinet members. Ultimately, however, the spy scandal once again raises questions about our perennially vexed and troubled relationship with Indonesia — a fact which the Prime Minister recognised by making Jakarta his first foreign visit.
Indeed, Abbott’s initial forays in foreign policy evinced a pragmatic awareness of the region’s fractious interstate relations. His low-key pragmatism has now been put to the test, and there are several important reasons why an apology is both unnecessary and could play into the worst aspects of regional diplomacy.
Despite the Guardianista and Green Left lamentation over the evils of surveillance, all regional governments, including the Indonesian one, accept that state security requires good intelligence. Those who think differently inhabit either Australian university international relations departments or the place where the people from cloud cuckoo land go for their holidays. The emergence of the modern state and the formation of the first secret service occurred simultaneously.
Raison d’état still demands a Machiavellian distinction between the intelligence and deliberation that go into policy-making and the presentation of that policy to a political audience whether at home or abroad. More particularly, sophisticated intelligence-gathering during the Cold War largely explains why that conflict never became hot.
Conversely, Australian inattention to the rise of radical Islam in south-east Asia reflected both an intelligence failure and the dominance of a post-Whitlamite Asian engagement lobby of Labor fashioning that assumed, somewhat cavalierly, that south-east Asian Islam was moderate, modern and economically progressive. Only weeks before the Bali bombing in 2002, Labor-leaning security experts at leading Australian universities considered the threat of radical Islam in the region wildly exaggerated. After belatedly recognising the existence of the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist network, who find the democratic tolerance of Indonesian, post-Suharto era politics highly congenial, it is hardly surprising that the Howard, Rudd and Gillard governments considered intelligence-gathering in Indonesia fundamental to Australian security.
Significantly, the hard-line demonstrators who’ve assaulted the Australian embassy either belong to the ultra nationalist Besah Merah Puti (the red and white irons), the radical Jakarta-based Islamic Defenders Front or the regionally ubiquitous Hizb-ut Tahrir, whom various former members consider a conveyor belt to jihad. With an election year fast approaching, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono loses nothing by milking the spy scandal for domestic purposes.
And herein lies the key to the high octane rhetoric emanating from Jakarta. The Indonesian President’s aggrieved stance and remorseless Tweeting, together with the posturing of ANU-educated foreign minister Marty Natalegawa, has secured a much needed boost in the polls for the previously languishing Democrat party. Prior to the crisis, SBY and his party, immured in a number of domestic graft scandals involving cabinet members, faced electoral wipe-out in the forthcoming 2014 national assembly and presidential elections. However, as political analyst Siti Zuhro of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences points out, the President’s reaction to wire-tapping had a much needed positive effect on his image.
In fact, Jakarta’s fervently nationalistic press demonstrates how Indonesia’s uncertain democratisation has unhinged its diplomatic practice since the fall of Suharto in 1998. Australia is not the only regional state to face a chauvinistic popular backlash orchestrated by a hostile press and dial-a-mob political agitation. Both Singapore and Kuala Lumpur have the scars to show from run-ins with Jakarta’s megaphone diplomatic agitprop.
The Indonesian media has regularly berated Singapore for its mistreatment of Indonesian maids. Meanwhile, Muslim Malaysia, viewed as adik or younger brother to Indonesia’s abang (elder brother), has borne the brunt of Indonesian ire for, among other things, disputed claims to islands in the South China Sea; repatriating illegal Indonesian immigrants; and appropriating Indonesian folk songs like ‘Rasa Sayang’ to promote its ‘Malaysia Truly Asia’ advertising campaign. And although Singapore considered the spy row a ‘big story’, the coverage was notably evenhanded, while in Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok larger domestic issues prevailed at the expense of what several regional observers considered to be Indonesia’s hysterical, if somewhat predictable, response to a widespread local practice.
Indeed, the region’s mature reading of the espionage revelations, especially in Bangkok, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, contrasts with Indonesia’s immaturity and its evident indifference to the much more important security issues confronting south-east Asia as a consequence of China’s rise, which requires both a US and an Australian presence in the region.
However, rather than addressing Jakarta’s overreaction, the parochial Australian media has merely fuelled the Indonesian government’s increasingly desperate attempts to keep attention away from its domestic shortcomings, or address the complex issues that confront east and south-east Asia. No wonder the media-savvy Marty Natalegawa has cleverly exploited the Australian elite’s propensity for self-loathing. Marty has had an expensive education in political correctness. Educated first at a private school in England, he completed an undergraduate degree at the LSE and a Masters in International Relations at Cambridge before undertaking a doctorate in the Asia and the Pacific College of the Australian National University, which he completed in 1993.
In other words, Marty possesses a postgraduate insight into the fashionable critical theorising promulgated by the Anglosphere’s leading universities that sees the west as the source of all the globe’s problems. This fashionable education enables him to manipulate effortlessly Australian academe and its national broadcaster’s default propensity to condemn any attempt to promote and secure the national interest. Marty would be more at home on Q&A than Julie Bishop.
There is a silver lining to this crisis: Ari Dwipayana, a political scientist at Gadjah Mada University, notes that although Indonesians appreciate SBY’s stance for now, it may not be for long. In an era of the sensation-driven 24/7 environment, neither the Indonesian media nor the self-lacerating Australian one is likely to maintain the rage. So Abbott should keep speaking softly, acting courteously, acknowledging regret and telling the editors of the Guardian, Kompas and the Jakarta Post to take a Bex and have a long lie down.
David Martin Jones is a senior lecturer in politics and international studies at the University of Queensland.