sexta-feira, 22 de novembro de 2013

Two nations in stormy waters

Greg Sheridan,
Foreign Editor From: The Australian
November 21, 2013 12:00AM
Illustration: Eric Lobbecke Source: TheAustralian
THE deepening conflict between Australia and Indonesia over the spying revelations reveals serious pathologies in the political culture of both countries. The Australian view of Indonesia is revealed to be steeped in ignorance and constantly flowing back and forth between a view of Indonesia as the source of monstrous ills, and the saviour of Australia's difficulties, from boatpeople to national security more generally.

Tony Abbott has inherited a firestorm in the context of a political culture uniquely ill-equipped to deal with Indonesia.

On the Left of Australian politics, Indonesia is seen as a villain, yet simultaneously Australian governments are held morally responsible for any of its alleged crimes.

Thus it is a common view on the Left that Gough Whitlam could have prevented Indonesia's invasion of East Timor in 1975, that John Howard was responsible for the militia killings in the lead-up to East Timor's independence, that Australian intelligence was to blame for failing to anticipate the Bali bombings, that every boat of asylum-seekers that sinks, even if this happens within a kilometre of the Indonesian shore, is somehow Canberra's moral responsibility.

At the same time 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.

Similarly, consider the ABC's triumphalism over the Edward Snowden revelations. How much of a journalistic investigation by the ABC do these documents really represent? You could make the case that no institution through the years has done more to damage the Australia-Indonesia relationship than the ABC.

Both sides of Australian politics talk big on Indonesia but deliver very little. The Rudd and Gillard governments extolled Australia in the Asian Century, yet the study of Indonesian language collapsed on their watch. Our cadre of people who are in any sense Indonesia literate is desperately thin.

On the Indonesians' side, the spying dispute reveals the continued, exaggerated, defensive nationalism that pervades so much of their public discussion and political culture. Don't get me wrong. Any country would react in a nationalistic fashion to these spying revelations. Everyone knows that this sort of spying is almost routine and conducted almost universally, including by Indonesia. But public revelation will always bring a nationalist backlash.

Let me give you one example. 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. These next sentences are very sensitive. It would be perfectly plausible for Australia to commit never to place the phone calls of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono under surveillance ever again. It would be much more difficult to say that Australia will never find itself intercepting a communication by any Indonesian president ever again. And of course a government would place itself in a wilderness of mirrors once it went down such a road, needing to replicate similar assurances for other nations.

It's not really practical. And yet 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.

This is all acutely dangerous for Abbott. The public won't excuse him because he didn't create these problems. If the situation is not calm, the public will eventually blame him, unless he then polarises Australian opinion against Indonesia, and that would be unmitigated disaster.

Two nations in stormy waters

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