20 November 2013

Indonesia's overreaction mimics Australia's

THE deepening conflict between Australia and Indonesia over the spying revelations reveals serious pathologies in the political culture of both countries...
Tony Abbott has inherited a firestorm in the context of a political culture uniquely ill-equipped to deal with Indonesia.
... the Left resolutely campaigns to destroy any actual Australian influence in Indonesia. The Greens' Adam Bandt complains that Abbott is risking the relationship, yet the Greens' longstanding support for West Papuan independence is designed to rip Indonesia to shreds.
...On the Indonesians' side, the spying dispute reveals the continued, exaggerated, defensive nationalism that pervades so much of their public discussion and political culture. ... Everyone knows that this sort of spying is almost routine and conducted almost universally, including by Indonesia. ...
...In 2010, the Israelis used an Australian passport in a counter-terrorist targeted assassination of the kind Australian troops routinely carried out in Afghanistan, and that Australia supports when carried out by American drones. When this was revealed, how calm and measured was the Australian reaction? Our government denounced Israel publicly. Unlike most other Western governments similarly affected, we expelled an Israeli diplomat and gave the Israelis no advance notice of this. His name and intelligence affiliation were leaked to the press. We declared we were pulling back on intelligence co-operation, although such co-operation gives us more than it gives the Israelis. Our reaction was disproportionate and hysterical. So we ought to take some pause before we criticise the Indonesians for overreaction.
If the Indonesians do cut off co-operation in significant areas they would damage themselves as well as damaging us. Sadly, such counter-productive actions are pretty common when nations get het-up with nationalistic fervour about slights, real and perceived.
What can Abbott do now? What should he do? What is at stake? Abbott's statements have all been sound and reasonable. There is overwhelming sense in neither confirming nor denying intelligence activities and there are virtually no promises he could reasonably make about the future...
... there is a demonstrable need to try to soothe Indonesian feelings on this issue. One of the most attractive elements of Abbott's political personality is that he doesn't like to say things that he doesn't mean or that aren't true. However, that makes it especially difficult for him to apologise without apologising, or make a promise that is not really a promise. That is why his statement to parliament on Tuesday, while completely correct in substance, sounded a little tough.
Sometimes international diplomacy does demand very odd locutions. A lot of things are presumably happening on back channels. The gulf may be too big to breach, but presumably Australian diplomats are exploring whether there is any form of words Abbott could actually reasonably utter that would be helpful to the Indonesians. Similarly, our friends, the Americans, but also possibly the Japanese, the Singaporeans and others, may be quietly reminding the Indonesians of how beneficial for the whole region a good Jakarta-Canberra relationship is.
Here is an uncomfortable, unpalatable, undiplomatic truth. No nation can so easily cause us grief as Indonesia, from people-smuggling, through counter-terrorism co-operation, through regional diplomacy or, at a much worse level, perhaps causing headaches on the borders of Papua New Guinea or East Timor, where we have de facto security responsibilities. That is a basic power consideration Australian prime ministers must take into account...