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The Indonesia spy scandal and Australia’s future

Image courtesy of smh.com.au

Image courtesy of smh.com.au

With reports that Indonesia is strengthening its military to preserve its “territorial integrity and sovereignty” and that Australia is seen as their greatest threat, this guest post from Dr Strobe Driver is timely. Those reports, chillingly, suggest that Australia’s “tow-back” policy may soon ignite conflict impelled by the Indonesia spy scandal. Dr Driver argues the ball is – and has always been – in Abbott’s court.

Professor White of the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre is right in his article in The Age, on 26 November, 2013: “Abbott playing with diplomatic fire in Asia.” The level of incompetence shown by the Abbott Government in dealing with the Indonesian Government is staggering, and it will have repercussions. The repercussions to which I allude, will incrementally be enforced as China rises and in turn, as Indonesia becomes more militarily robust. The objective of the Abbott Government should be one of instilling stability in to the region and this is not encouraged by platitudes in the Parliament about who are Australia’s ‘valuable friends.’ A fundamental reason why this issue is still a vibrant one is due to the Coalition when it was in opposition, telling the Indonesian Government how it will have to regulate and/or deal with any regional problems: such as people smuggling.

To be sure, the platitudes about how borders will be ‘protected’ was to placate the domestic population of Australia and make sure Abbott was seen to be a focused and forthright spokesman; and this would have the knock-on of reinforcing Australia’s dominance in the region. There is no doubt that the current prime minister was hoping for the success the former prime minister John Howard had in 2001 with his message of “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”, and of any of hoping for the same reverberation in the populace.

The grandstanding of Australia in the current circumstances, however, is fundamentally and decisively flawed as it does not recognise things are different now; and this is a most worrying aspect of the ongoing issues (and frictions) with Indonesia. Times have changed. For the Australian population to assume that Indonesia will not, and has not, gained confidence from the rise of China—a geographically close neighbour to Indonesia—and that it will always wish to solve problems that Australia has with it, is naïve in the extreme. Indonesia has grown as a nation-state since 2001. Moreover, for Australia to not understand this is now downright dangerous and will be problematic in the future. First and foremost, Indonesia is not the country it was when the (then) Prime Minister John Howard made his forthright statement, as Indonesia is now a much more politically robust nation-state, one that is keen to establish its place in the twenty-first century; and the Asia-Pacific region. More to the point, when China begins to move in to the western Pacific in a more forthright manner or in simpler terms, when the People’s Liberation Army Navy is able to establish an ongoing military presence in the western Pacific, its presence this will change all the current parameters.

The primary issue-at-hand is, Australia should not ignore this situation. Moreover, this is what a nation-state does when it has a burgeoning middle-class that wishes to reinvigorate their ‘place’ in the world and it happens on many levels: political, diplomatic, strategic, and financial to name only several key areas. Indonesia is no different than Australia was in the 1960s. As the middle-class of Indonesia become more and more astute and politically aware an outcome—and hence, a repercussion—for Australia will be that as Indonesia gains a ‘momentum’ there will be less reason for it to rely on Australia for imports and therefore Australia’s industries will be impacted upon in a negative way. One should not assume that Indonesia’s allegiance to Australia is anything beyond opportunistic—just as all country’s spy, all countries are opportunistic—and it should be admitted at this point that Australia has done little to actively promote a deeper mutual relationship with its Asia-Pacific partners in order to gain more meaningful relationships, is in fact, a fantasy.

In the future a peripheral of the rise of China is Indonesia will begin to look at its Asian neighbours with a renewed interest in terms of who will benefit Indonesia most; and the notion of mutuality will also come to the fore. Unfortunately, Australia is not enabling this process to be undertaken in the seamless way it could, and this lack of decisive action must mean Indonesia’s focus will shift toward its most powerful neighbour. The spying scandal essentially does nothing to invigorate Australia-Indonesia relations and actively encourages Indonesia to seek political union elsewhere. Spying and the subsequent sharing of information with Australia’s allies—which the Indonesians are fully aware of—will impact on Australia in the future, and whilst this may not be critical at the moment, it will exponentially undermine future relations with Indonesia. This will a prove to be at its most dangerous nature when China begins its strategic manoeuvrings in the western Pacific in the next decade. The recent spying scandal vividly portrays Australia’s deep-seated attitude to its nearest northern neighbour and it will not go unnoticed for a very long time. Now to the dangers for Australia. Are there any further dangers for Australia in the future as the relationship with Indonesia (a land of 250million+ people) when the situation continues to incrementally deteriorate? The short answer to this is ‘yes’! This can manifest in many ways, however, if Indonesia uses the spying issue to strengthen its ties with China, and with this backing decides to enforce its sovereignty within nautical boundaries, this will create ongoing problems and tension. Sounds far-fetched? Nation-states have a tendency when backed by other powerful state actors they to enforce their sovereign rights in a more decisive way. North Korea utilizing China’s support, and currently Japan accommodating US B-52 fly-overs of their disputed islands are just two examples of this happening. If What if the frictions continue and eventually there is a military clash? This is where the United States (US) enters into the scenario. To be sure, there remains a widely-held assumption that the US will come to the aid of Australia should there be a force-on-force collision with Indonesia. Assuming this would take place in current times is debatable, however, as tensions inevitably rise—especially in the next decade as China exerts its influence on Indonesia—it remains a possibility, though I would argue within the next half-decade not a probability. Nevertheless, ‘mistakes’ are often made, as the South Korean Navy will attest, with the (2010) sinking of one of its vessel’s in the Yellow Sea by the North Korean Navy.

Would the US come to Australia’s defence should an escalation of tensions between Australia and Indonesia take place? The answer to this is ‘no’! Why? The answer neatly returns to the element of opportunism. The Indonesian aircraft that were ordered by their president to cancel joint-exercise Elang Ausindo and fly back to Indonesia were US-built F-16 ‘Fighting Falcon’ strike fighters. The question that begs is, would the US immediately and unequivocally come to Australia’s aid at a time of crisis if, for instance, the Indonesian government threatened to curtail its defence budget which would impact on the sales of US strike aircraft, or sent signals to the US that is may seek to spend its defence money elsewhere? Once again, to automatically assume that the US would defend Australia is also naïve in the extreme, as the US is it is safe to argue, by definition, a very opportunistic of nation-state. Australia would be wise to exit from its past practice/s of near-contempt for Indonesia; and also of its assumptions about the US, and its role in Australia’s defence. The dynamics of the Asia-Pacific are changing rapidly and a re-assessment on the part of Australia in the milieu of geo-political preponderance is of the utmost necessity. Australia may, within the next decade, get caught between a China-US struggle for primacy in the western Pacific; commensurately find that Indonesia has sided with China, and Australia can no longer depend on US assistance. Decisive and perspicacious thinking is required by the Australian government–and quickly.

This article was first published on Geo-Strategic Orbit by Dr. Strobe Driver.

About Dr. Strobe Driver

After many years of interest in International Relations his doctoral thesis examined the progress of war as a mechanism of intent and as a deliberate outcome of specific actions; and moreover, how within this framework it is able to be utilized to a position of advantage.

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  1. allenmcmahon

    An interesting and thought provoking article.

    In an interview late last year on radio national Indonesia’s foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, said that while the relationship with Australia was important that ‘Indonesia looks up not down’ a reference to China.

    Abbott seems to think he can do whatever he wants because Indonesia needs us more than we need them but China would be happy to fill the void if relations broke down between our two countries .China is already providing aid to a number of small Pacific nations and it would be in there long term interests to have closer ties with Indonesia.

    If Abbott thinks the USA will come to our aid in the event of a dispute he is very much mistaken. The USA has proved on numerous occasions that it only acts out of self interest.

  2. Möbius Ecko

    To have an inkling of how bad Abbott and his woeful government have done in relations with Indonesia we have Indonesia openly stating in their media that they perceive Australia to be their greatest threat.

    House of Representatives defense, intelligence and foreign affairs committee member Susaningtyas Handayani Kertopati said the TNI should strengthen its “outward-looking” approach at a time when there were signs of escalating threats.

    “The greatest threat will obviously be from Australia,” she said.

    And this:

    A Defense Ministry official has warned that Australia’s “tow-back” policy may soon ignite conflict.

    The policy involves the Australian navy intercepting and forcing back to Indonesia boats crowded with undocumented migrants heading to Australia.

    “Now that we have three frigates on the border, a clash could be imminent as our Navy will prevent the towing back,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

    It might be sabre rattling, but even it is it’s a reflection of just how bad relations are with Indonesia, yet we have Abbott and Bishop the younger along with their gormless supporters constantly telling us all is good with Indonesia, and even if it weren’t they need us so much they can’t jeopardise that need in any way so we can do and say what we want in regards to them.

    In the meantime the real world continues to encroach on their make believe one.

  3. booboo

    An interesting topic yet again made difficult to read by repeated typos and grammar errors.
    Does nobody that publishes articles here own a spell-checker of some sort? I said it before and I’ll say it again that I in no way want to attack AIMN – I think you do great work and ask questions other people are too afraid to. But people with opposing views will never take you or us seriously when silly mistakes like this slip through. Even if the typos were present in the original doctor’s (!) article, they can still be corrected here.

  4. ben

    Im with booboo. More gramatical errors that kill the fliw of reading. Last few paragraphs were shockers.

  5. Dissenter

    This article cuts to the REAL issues at stake.
    How naive and blundering the Abbott government are.
    We cannot trust them to run any aspect of government yet alone international matters because they do not have the advice, intellectual dimension collectively to understand diplomacy, or the personal capacity to display diplomacy or diplomatic understanding of andtowards our allies.
    We are lucky that the Indonesians have demonstrated patience and decency throughout this debacle.

  6. John Fraser


    Looks like there are a couple here all for Gonski.


    Anyone who thinks Indonesia will not up the ante and punish Australia must have rocks in their head.

    First off will be sourcing more beef from places like Argentina … thats gotta be real good for Australia's beef farmers who are already doing it drought tough.

    Abbott only thinks he knows how to run a dictatorial State …. Indonesians have been doing it for half a century.

  7. Michael Taylor

    Booboo, could you please point out the spelling errors? I will correct them.

    Apart from that, I’m not at liberty to alter the original article in any way.

  8. booboo

    Michael Taylor, should I try to copy & paste several paragraphs on my phone, or do you think you can manage you own proof-read?

  9. John Kelly

    BooBoo, I take The Age newspaper seriously, yet the number of typos and spelling mistakes I find with their online service grows by the day.

  10. Matters not.

    booboo said:

    made difficult to read by repeated typos and grammar (sic) errors

    Really booboo? I think you mean ‘grammatical’ errors. Grammar is a noun, the adjectival form of which is ‘grammatical’. Shakes head. Then we have:

    Does nobody that publishes

    I suspect that ‘anybody’ is more fitting, but I’m prepared to debate. Then we have Ben who is in support of booboo (can’t understand why) until I read his contribution:

    Im (sic) with booboo

    Ben ‘Im’ is a contraction of ‘I am’ and therefore requires an apostrophe because the ‘a’ has been omitted.

    Simply shakes head. But further from ben

    errors that kill the fliw of reading

    In my experience, misspelt words really upset the flow of reading. Just sayin …

    Perhaps the author is ‘guilty’ (lol) of correctly using ‘its’ (and not it’s) on each and every occasion?

    Ben and booboo really are ignorant.

  11. Matters not.

    BTW, if one is in the business of looking for ‘errors’ then the addition of an apostrophe when using a plural is very, very common. For example, in the article above we have:

    its vessel’s in the Yellow Sea

    I should add, that the ‘yanks’ use apostrophes without regard to ‘rhyme nor reason’. And it’s likely that Australia will follow. Just sayin …

  12. cornlegend

    Abbott’s wrecking the joint, and we are going to squabble over a bloody comma.
    Don’t bother correcting me, I couldn’t give a toss.

  13. randalstella

    If the spooks were accountable to Government, Government policy and approach to its neighbours would be relevant to espionage The most that can be said is that the spooks now have a Government not much different from their own insular political prejudices. Are the spies answerable to Government? It seems an absurd question.
    But this an absurd country; where a few thousand of the most powerless and defenceless ‘boat people’ are enough to set in train billions of dollars of actions intercepting them, incarcerating them off-shore in detention camps; and denying them any chance of Australian citizenship. This is seen as dealing with a ‘threat’ to Australia – while real possible threats are made more likely by the unilateral actions involved in this crazy refugee policy.
    All this money and action to get the votes of ignoramuses, to get into and hold onto Government. It is undermining Australia’s role in the region – particularly as the regime in power because it has the worst approach to asylum seekers is also politically and diplomatically inept in the extreme. They act like White supremacists, because…
    The ‘boat people’ saga will look a curiosity in a century from now, when Australia may be predominantly Chinese. Maybe an ethnically Chinese P.M will read out an apology to ‘boat people’ in Parliament. But, besides references to racism, I doubt if he or she will quite understand what all this destructive nonsense has been about.

  14. Jherek Jagged

    Thanks for the article Dr. Stobe. It does highlight how totally the Abbott Government has trashed our relationship with Indonesia, after years of various Governments creating quite a strong with our close neighbour.

    To me though, the biggest danger from this chest thumping and continual belittling of the Indonesians is the loss of economic opportunities. While the threat of war is the scariest outcome, it is hard to imagine how it would come to that. It is the economic damage Indonesia can inflict on us, especially if they work in co-operation with China, that is the biggest concern. It is the lost opportunities for trade that are suffering.I have already heard runours from those who trade with Indonesians that, while no current arrangements have been impacted (yet), no new investments are being forged between the two countries.

    And this is the result of actions from a Government who promised that we were “Open for Business”

    Well, so far, they have closed down far more trade than anything the live stock trade could achieve. And our media appear to have missed all of this.

  15. CJ118

    Sir, your article holds some truth but is hyperbolic and poorly written. Yes, Abbott is not the most gifted diplomat and could respond better to the whole spying conundrum, but Indonesia is not becoming any “more militarily robust” than it has been in the past decade. We have no interest in a military confrontation. We are more concerned with taking care of 243 million people, fixing domestic infrastructure, reducing the crippling impact of annual floods and narrowing the fiscal deficit. Simply put, we have better things to worry about then Australia.

  16. Just Sayin'

    To Matter Not – | And it’s likely that Australia will follow. Just sayin … should have an apostrophe at the end to replace the missing letter g. – Just sayin’

  17. randalstella

    So CJ118,
    You won’t mind any cutback to the very large funding aid provided Indonesia by Australia – including for your schools, and your benign defence forces?

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