I suppose we’ll never know if when Kevin Rudd dropped the word “Konfrontasi” into the pre-election debate on Tony Abbott’s “turn back the boats” policy he was merely stirring up his Coalition opponents or whether he was directly aware of the depth of contempt Indonesian elites had towards the Coalition’s sabre-rattling. The term certainly had the first effect, sending right-wing foreign policy types into apoplexies.
But the events of recent days — (1) news that there had been one or more stand-offs with Australian authorities trying (and failing) to get Indonesia to take asylum seeker boats back into its waters, and (2) revelations that Australia spied on Indonesian leaders, and even President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s wife, in the Rudd years — have confirmed a dramatic escalation of diplomatic tensions between the two countries. That Abbott has refused to apologise for either, on the grounds of national security interests, has only deepened the crisis.
These developments have had the curious result that the most credible and effective opposition to the Abbott government we currently have resides not in Australia but in Jakarta (aided somewhat by an American citizen currently in asylum limbo in Russia). Two areas where Abbott was hoping to secure some advantage — over boat arrivals and his commitment to the US alliance — have instead become sources of loss of political authority. It has been delicious to watch Abbott get stuck ever deeper in a mess of his own making, now well out of his control. Especially pleasing has been the sight of leaders of a Muslim country upbraiding a Liberal Party that shamelessly deployed Islamophobic provocations as part of its domestic and international tactics during the War on Terror.
Even before these events, Abbott’s pragmatic backdowns on other aspects of his asylum policy and his abject apology to Malaysia had virtually reduced him to continuing ALP policy in practice. Add to that his defence of the Sri Lankan government’s parlous human rights record while donating patrol boats for them to prevent persecuted Tamils from escaping the country, as well as the policy of silence on “operational matters”, and the narrative being constructed is one of incoherence, backflips and unjustifiable secrecy.
One result has been a rapid loss of credibility on border protection, with this week’s Essential poll reporting, “28% think that performance of the Federal Government in handling the issue of asylum seekers arriving by boat is good and 40% think it is poor.”
But it’s the spying scandal that has crystallised what is really happening here. Abbott in opposition staked his policy choices not just on being tough on boat people, but on presuming that Indonesia would be part of regional “cooperation” (translation: “submission”) on the issue. That assumption required a Coalition government that had the clout to get its way, as the Howard government did after the string of setbacks Indonesia’s elites suffered with Suharto’s fall, the Australian occupation of East Timor, the War on Terror and the fallout from the Bali bombing. In each instance Australia could rely on Indonesia’s internal problems and the strength of the US-Australia alliance to get its way, despite Indonesian unhappiness.
While Indonesia is not the most stable nation in the world, its ruling elite has recovered from the crises of the late 1990s. More importantly, the long, agonising decline of US imperial power — a process delayed but not reversed by the political uptick of the War on Terror — has become more apparent in recent times.
To get why US power is important it’s necessary to grasp that Australia is not a superpower in its own right. It is a significant regional power that dominates a number of semi-developed island nations and, by virtue of being a key junior partner of the United States, has been able to punch above its weight in terms of regional influence. In Howard’s words Australia was “deputy” to the United States’ regional “sheriff” when it invaded East Timor to take advantage of the mess left by the Indonesians. But when the sheriff can no longer strike fear into the hearts of the townspeople and maintain order in the same way as in the past, the deputy’s room for throwing its own weight around is severely constrained.
The US of the Obama era is much diminished, having tasted the bitterness of failure in two major military adventures (Afghanistan and Iraq), the eruption of revolutionary movements in the Middle East, an inability to contain the aspirations of its designated key threats — Iran and China — and only slowly recovering from prolonged recession at home. The key challenge for an Australian political establishment (including the Greens) that has long gained authority from its “special relationship” with US imperialism is how to deal with the changing geopolitical power balance in the Asia-Pacific, one of US decline and increasing Chinese confidence.
The spying revelations lay the dynamic bare. As many commentators have pointed out, this kind of spying is the norm. But Yudhoyono has decided to take advantage of Abbott’s overreach by demanding a clear apology. For Abbott, apologising to placate Indonesia would be tantamount to an admission of the weak basis of his claims to regional authority (i.e. the idea that he leads a country can do as it pleases in the region, and is backed by the US should anyone question that right).
An apology would also undermine Australia’s end of its bargain with the US: that it continues to help bolster US power in the region by spying for its senior alliance partner. Unlike Rudd, who showed a special skill in using the new regional realities to shape domestic politics with the PNG arrangement and exposing Abbott’s inability to win Indonesian compliance on boats, Abbott has allowed his domestic political imperatives to be tested in the realm of geopolitics — and to be found sorely wanting.
It is the latest stage in a process whereby the Right’s political crisis is being thrown into sharper focus, no longer obscured by Labor’s convulsions in office.
Obviously sensing Abbott’s political weakness, Yudhoyono (eschewing megaphone diplomacy in favour of Twitter diplomacy) has made clear just how much grovelling he expects to resolve the conflict. Some domestic pressure — however inadequate — has also been put on the government by the Greens and Labor, in the form of calls for some kind of apology over the spying.
On the other hand, Left nationalist arguments — like those of Clinton Fernandes — that Australia has every right to spy on Indonesia because Indonesian governments have done bad stuff should be rejected. They are in effect a defence of the malign regional influence of the US and its allies, including Australia, and of the Abbott government itself. Remembering that the main enemy is at home has rarely been more important. We should think carefully about how we can increase our enemy’s pain.