We need to talk about Indonesia

by · November 20, 2013

The not-so-special relationship

The not-so-special relationship

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.

Discussion12 Comments

  1. kevin1 says:

    Andrew Wilkie MP, the ex-ONA analyst and Iraq war whistleblower, was interviewed by Michelle Grattan yesterday at The Conversation and his views should be carefully considered. http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2013/11/19/abbott-wont-say-sorry-sby

    Below I summarise what seems relevant here.

    *He is generally supportive of current practice.
    *the people who are close to the people who have secrets are valid targets (eg. SBY’s wife, Ibu Ani)
    *He supports Edward Snowden because “Snowden has done us a public service by telling us what these people get up to”
    *the Indonesian outrage is political theatre for domestic consumption.
    *He believes that effective privacy protection of the rights of Aust citizens exists but can be improved
    *currently there is no parliamentary oversight of operational intelligence matters; unlike in the US, the parlt ctee only oversees admin of intell agencies
    *some greater oversight is better, not just by the Minister.

    Wilkie’s main points in defence of spying were:

    *Intelligence provides info about terrorist plans, what people smugglers are saying, what the foreign political leadership is thinking, and their intentions, views and concerns about Australia
    *the alternative is that we don’t understand well what is happening, the risk of being caught by surprise, and making decisions in a vacuum
    *knowing other countries well and understanding those countries better fosters more stable rel’ships
    *one reason why Bush Jr. J Howard, Blair etc were able to create a false story about Iraq was that there was an intelligence vacuum which they were able to backfill with whatever story they wanted
    *in our region, if we don’t know what’s going on, we can – and perhaps should – assume the worst, which is not good for relations with our neighbours.

    It seems to me that the uncertainty created by lack of knowledge promotes dangerous and hostile behaviour, while transparency of information amongst participants (govts. not citizens) seems a moderating and rational influence. (If you like, an “open conspiracy”).The Iraq example is very important to examine.

    There is little if any connection with the privacy issues which concern domestic citizens, which should not overshadow national defence (of which intelligence is a component.).

  2. kevin1 says:

    My apologies, the SBS link above does not reference the podcast viz. http://michellegrattan.podbean.com/2013/11/19/andrew-wilkie/

  3. Jarvis says:

    Great post, thanks for getting to the heart of the issues. Also re the left nationalist defence of spying – conveniently forgetting that major Indonesian atrocities in West Papua, Timor Lester etc have all taken place basically with US/Australian complicity. Indonesian brutality in the Subarto era was welcomed by western imperialism for bringing stability to the region.

    • Dr_Tad says:

      Thanks. I think the Left nationalism is even more tortured than you suggest. If you look at Fernandes and even some on the radical Left it almost seems that “the main enemy is in Jakarta”, as if Australia is the less strategically powerful regional force.

      Sometimes I get the feeling that residual fear of Asian aggression from the North maintains its grip on the Left much more than it is polite to admit.

      • kevin1 says:

        Dr Tad, can you clarify that, if we had Australian leadership prepared to pressure Indonesia in defence of West Papuan interests, then you would support spying on SBY and others as acceptable to advance this aim?

        We know that in the East Timor case, in 1975, and in 1999, Australian intelligence knew what was going on or what was about to happen, yet didn’t act. However, the Interfet forces in late 1999 did use wireless intelligence provided by East Timor supporters in the NT to maximise their success. Don’t you agree that spying is a matter of what are the ends, not the means.

        If Australia was to rule out spying in principle, where does that leave us for the future? The lineup for the next President includes Wiranto (the TNI general in charge when troops destroyed East Timor in 1999), Prabowo (banned from US entry as a suspected war criminal*), and SBY has his own ET history http://www.yayasanhak.minihub.org/mot/Susilo%20Bambang%20Yudhoyono.htm#_ftn8

        Andrew Wilkie is not a leftist but has given some interesting views based on game theory about how intelligence can make for better decisions and is integral to national defence, which I was hoping commenters would critique. I guess that’s irrelevant if you deny Australian national interest as a justified objective, but that suggests Indonesian national interest should not be respected either.

        It is sad that this issue has unleashed in Australia such an outpouring of suppressed emotions and hyperbole in the community but the contagion seems to be spreading. Your suggestion that some Leftists have a “residual fear of Asian aggression from the North” is just startling. Care to elaborate?

        Whether Australia is the more powerful regional force, I don’t know. Pacific region yes, but SE Asia? Indonesia takes offence because it believes its proper place is now at the head table of nations, and has been slighted. Is it the relevant consideration for us to see this issue through the prism of Australia as US proxy?

        * A footnote here. For electoral reasons, Prabowo is campaigning for clemency for an Indonesian maid on death row in Malaysia for killing her employer. It is a sign of the lively Indonesian media that the Jakarta Globe quoted an Indonesian (by name) who said this is appropriate as “If there’s a principle that Prabowo has stood by his entire professional career, it’s unjust executions”. http://ourindonesiatoday.blogspot.com.au/2013/10/indonesias-prabowo-turns-ambassador.html

        • Dr_Tad says:

          I’m not in favour of any spying by Australia on Indonesia, in part because I don’t think that the Australian state can be partner in fighting Indonesian oppression of the West Papuan people (anymore than I think that the Australian occupation of East Timor was an act of liberation, an opinion I hold that I know is deeply unpopular on the Australian Left).

          To clarify why, I return to one of the points I make in the blog post — that Australia is part of a US-led imperialist hierarchy in the region, and that Australia’s role cannot simply be considered isolated from this. This spying fiasco is really about the Australian state spying on Indonesian ruling elites for the US. I think that if you look at the history of US hegemony in South East Asia it is hard to argue that its (very occasional) more “humanitarian” actions are worth the cost of what its central activities have been — propping up dictators, helping but down popular resistance, etc.

          But the issue now is that US geopolitical power in the region is in decline, and China is an increasingly powerful competitor. That gives Indonesia’s ruling elites, who have recovered from the risk of national fragmentation in the late 1990s, more ability to act independently and even aggressively towards Australia.

          For all the quasi-racist talk of this being about SBY “saving face” or that Indonesians are the types to respond “emotionally” rather than in a “cool, rational” manner like Australian politicians, actually they have shown themselves to be sophisticated political operators who sensed Abbott’s weakness on these issues and went in for the kill. If anyone is getting emotional it’s some on the Australian Right — I mean, the Mark Textor Twitter thing is symptomatic of the grief this has caused the Coalition.

          So, getting back to West Papua, I think that the effect of lining up with the Australian state is in effect lining up with trying to maintain US hegemony in the region, even if it is sometimes motivated (as it seems to be for you) by absolutely correct concern over the nasty actions of the Indonesian state. That’s why, even if it seems to be a very hard thing to do, giving the Australian state zero support on this kind of stuff is for me the starting point for any Left response. Indeed, our solidarity should be with the people of both West Papua and Indonesia against their rulers, and against Indonesia’s role in West Papua. I just can’t see how Australian spying can be a shortcut to that.

          • kevin1 says:

            Dr Tad, I’m not sure whether this website encourages debate, but optimistically I will make a few points and see what happens. I waited a while for others to talk, but you have little commenter feedback on this blog or response to questions. Is argument not welcome here?

            Firstly, my previous post queried your shocking and unique comment that “the residual fear of Asian aggression from the North maintains its grip on the Left”. In your next post, you ignored my request for evidence, and added another un-referenced smear viz. “quasi-racist talk about SBY “saving face””. Quasi-racist sounds like a coward’s word for “racist”: as I said at New Matilda that “Diplomacy 101 suggests there is loss of face and some humiliation on the Indonesian side which needs to be dealt with”, maybe you are talking about me?

            When did “loss of face” ibecome a racist construct? The cultural divide between Asia and AustraliaI is often commented on by Asian as well as Australian experts https://theconversation.com/on-the-ground-the-indonesian-response-to-the-spying-saga-20577. From a few years living in Indonesia the cultural differences in communication and understanding also ring true to me. BTW it doesn’t mean Indonesians don’t want democracy, if that’s what you’re implying about interlocutors (again, please clarify.)

            I’m surprised and disappointed that someone of your political and professional background degrades debate in this way. I was attracted to this site by your grounded, empirical approach to political analysis, and expected a disposition to persuade rather than pronounce. The “Left position” may be self-evident to you, but not to me, despite our similarity in political lineage.

            Perhaps I could shift back to the title of the post and comment on the ABC’s role in our political system and the boundaries of debate. IMO, the benefit of the ABC media is not whether they take an oppositional position, but their integrity in drawing a line which is a benchmark for the commercials, and defining what is challenging journalism.

            The Q and A program tonight again validated that important role – not as opposition, but as moderator – in national debate. Tony Jones, in his blunt Australian way, directly tackled the US propagandist ex-diplomat Kurt Campbell, despite his silky presentation skills justifying the “black arts” of diplomacy and the US position in particular. Nowhere (can I say that again: NOWHERE) on the commercial platforms would he be challenged in this way. Yet we have Sales, Alberici, Middleton and others who (on a good day) will do the same, yet without becoming ‘leftists.’

            Q and A also included media, novelists and Julian Burnside, who are yet to realise that there are two people in a conversation, and suspects who call SBY or his wife on the phone may in fact be the intelligence targets. Although aur Intelligence agents are often PhDs in their field, lawyers and journalists whose profession is talking – not knowledge and analysis – feel free to pass judgement. Their inchoate approach is almost always inferior to the ABC perspective.

            Just a final question: if Aust is a US agent in Asia, how come we are so ineffectual in securing co-operation on the refugee/asylum seeker issue? The Bali Process or the more recent Jakarta Declaration https://theconversation.com/stopping-people-smuggling-requires-more-than-just-indonesias-help-20585 seem to he quite ineffectual whether driven by Rudd or Abbott. In which country in SE Asia do we hold sway?

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