The reaction from Indonesia’s foreign minister, Dr Marty Natalegawa, has been so critical and outspoken that it has been suggested Indonesia may even withdraw support from Australia on a number of programs, including people smuggling.
Whilst most countries would be incensed to learn that they are being spied upon (just look at Germany and the USA), Indonesia’s reaction appears particularly vitriolic, and this has Australian authorities worried as to why and how we should deal with this potentially politically damaging issue?
For those who know Indonesia well, one thing is certain: It’s not as straight-forward as it seems. It never is in the world of Indonesian-and particularly Javanese-culture.
The Indonesian foreign minister’s outrage therefore, is fuelled by a number of factors; some obvious, some not so obvious:
First, Indonesia is rightfully annoyed that Australia - a close neighbour - would be spying on them from within their own country. The fact that Indonesia is now commencing what will be a very robust pre-election process over the next 12 months has seen a strong rise in nationalistic sentiment throughout the general population, amongst parliamentarians and in the general media, and an issue, such as a neighbour spying on them from within their own country, will only drive that sentiment to higher levels.
Indonesians are very sensitive about foreign ‘intrusion’ or interference in their affairs having being ruled by the Dutch for over 300 years! Dr Natalegawa knows this. He also is an astute politician who is also looking towards a continued political future for himself once his President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, steps down in September next year.
Second, despite the warm words and co-operation agreed upon by Dr Yudhoyono during Mr Abbott’s first visit to Indonesia, Dr Natalegawa was clearly not that happy about the level of goodwill and support his president offered the new prime minister over people smuggling. Many of his officials share that view.
People smuggling is not normally a big an issue in Indonesia compared to the headlines it attracts within Australia. But these are politically sensitive times in Indonesia, and Dr Natalegawa has always held the view that the asylum seeker issue is essentially an Australian-made problem caused by Australia ‘putting the sugar on table’ which attracted thousands of people from the Middle East to use Indonesia as a transit country on their way to a new life in Australia.
Following Abbott’s visit he has gained much political mileage in Australia thanks to this goodwill from Dr Yudhoyono, with the prime minister recently announcing a 90% reduction in boat arrivals resulting in a major breakthrough in resolving this problem. This is good news for Australians who just want an end to the people smuggling issue, but Indonesia now has some 10,000 asylum seekers stuck in their country with nowhere to go.
In an intense pre-election environment in Indonesia, this issue could also fuel an already strong nationalistic reaction against Australia (thanks to the spying issue) and more importantly, criticism within Indonesia of the president - and his foreign minister - for being too soft on Mr Abbott. Dr Natalegawa is not going to let that happen; at least to himself.
So what can Australia do to placate our now very agitated neighbour?
It's not that easy as in some respects Indonesia today is a bit like a modern aircraft flying on auto-pilot; with the captain asleep at the helm. Meanwhile, the crew are down the back manoeuvring and arguing as to where the plane should go and who should direct the operations of the flight. This metaphor will apply until the outcome of the 2014 election.
Notwithstanding these complexities, one effective way to 'sooth the waters' in a strategic way would be to acknowledge Indonesia’s role in reducing the number of asylum seeker boats now reaching Christmas Island by suggesting we increase our intake of refugees by say 10,000 - 15,000 per year. We could easily accommodate this increase, particularly as we need increased immigration as Australia’s baby-boomers age.
The additional intake could come from the people currently in Indonesia or Malaysia, and providing people were genuine refugees, there is no reason why the process could not be fast-tracked, giving a major incentive to asylum seekers to use the formal (legal) channel for their desired journey to Australia.
Such action would significantly reduce the pressure on Indonesia and would be a politically smart move by Australia, and potentially deflect – at least partially - the current tensions over spying.
We should not forget that within 12 months Indonesia will have a new government and a new president who will, most likely, be far more nationalistic and less warming to the idea of helping maintaining a long-term reduction in asylum seekers heading to Australia.
The sooner we act to support Indonesia by helping genuine refugees relocate out of their country, the greater the chance of Mr Abbott’s ‘stop-the-boats’ policy being embraced by the incoming president in 2014, and in the short term take some heat out of the spying issue that could very quickly become a major diplomatic crisis for both countries.