The Indonesia-Australia Spy Spat

Why Yudhoyono is so mad.

Allegations of Australian espionage towards Indonesia have recently ruffled feathers in Jakarta. While the espionage itself has been an open secret, what Indonesia doesn’t accept, let alone understand, is the depth and extent of the espionage. It’s intruded into the private lives of Indonesian key political and government figures, not least the President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and the first lady, Ani Yudhoyono. Adding insult to injury was Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s refusal to admit that these activities have been ongoing for a long time and consequently (as he refused to comment on intelligence matters), he refused to apologise. In retaliation, Jakarta recalled its Ambassador from Canberra and has terminated cooperation with Australia, particularly military cooperation, on people smuggling. Canberra might perceive Jakarta’s behaviour as an overreaction, or perhaps, assume the dust will easily settle soon. After all, both countries know (at least between their intelligence communities) that spying has been the common order of Australia–Indonesia (and indeed, international) relations. Assuming this mutual tacit ‘understanding’ will calm the storm pretty easily is very misleading and dangerous. The last thing Canberra should do is to underestimate Jakarta’s ire on this issue and the consequences it could potentially bring to bilateral relations.

Why is Indonesia so furious about this? The short answer is betrayal. Indonesia’s president has always seen Australia in largely positive terms. He trusts (or did trust) Australia more than his predecessors or even more than most Indonesians do. He thought that an Indonesia under his administration would be seen in a more positive light in Canberra—one that’s more open, democratic, and even friendlier to Australia—than under previous administrations. Briefly put, Yudhoyono expected Australia to see Indonesia as a ‘normal country’. This is why despite the recurring irritants in the relationship, such as the cattle issue or even Australia’s granting of asylum status to West Papuan separatists, relations eventually would get back on track. The fact that Yudhoyono was granted the honour to be the first Indonesian president to speak before the Australian parliament further reinforced his trust toward Australia. After all, Canberra has touted Yudhoyono’s nonofficial title as the best Indonesian president Australia has ever had.

But Yudhoyono has learnt from this incident that his personal trust toward Australia is and has never been reciprocated to the same degree from Canberra. In Australia, prime ministers can come and go, but the trust deficit between Australia’s semiautonomous intelligence community and Jakarta seems to be a constant. And the fact that Australia’s wiretapping also included Indonesia’s senior political and government figures further attests that this isn’t just a personal attack against the President, but can also be perceived as an affront toward Indonesia as a nation.