Please Update your browser

Your browser is out of date, and may not be compatible with our website. A list of the most popular web browsers can be found below.
Just click on the icons to get to the download page.

Jakarta Post

Can Indonesia'€™s '€˜good friend'€™ Australia be trusted?

  • Evi Fitriani

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Tue, November 26, 2013   /  10:51 am

A diplomatic row has developed between Canberra and Jakarta, driven by information from the Snowden intelligence documents that said Australia eavesdropped not only on Indonesia'€™s President and his wife but also on other top persons.

Through his tweets, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono demanded an explanation from the Australian leader. Before the Australian parliament on Nov. 19, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Australia would not apologize because the spying had been conducted out of national interest and that spying was common practice between countries.

Subsequently, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa recalled Indonesian Ambassador to Australia Nadjib Riphat Kesoema just as the prime minister issued his firm stance, and just as the ambassador was supposed to give a keynote speech at the Australia-Indonesia Dialogue Forum at Griffith University.

Scholars'€™ efforts to establish more trust between the two countries seem to be a small drop of water in the boiling pot of damaged relations.

Despite President Yudhoyono'€™s strange way of communicating with his foreign counterpart and the inter-link between diplomatic rhetoric and domestic politics, one may contemplate the use of spying practices in international relations, particularly when it comes to relations between Indonesia and Australia.

Indonesians question why Australians need to spy on the country that it has many times claimed it is good friends with. Australia could get information directly from anybody. It is an open secret that some countries have applied the strategy of '€œdivide and rule'€ in dealing with Indonesian state institutions.

Due to poor coordination and disunity among Indonesian elites and institutions, foreign countries have often approached other institutions when its interests are not met through one particular institution. So, why bother intercepting when this strategy of '€œdivide and rule'€ is widely available?

From some colleagues in Canberra and in the Australian media these days, we find a defensive answer, '€œWe spy on you because it is common practice; do not pretend that you don'€™t know about this spying business. You also do it to us.'€


If the '€œfriendliest'€ president was tapped, it only makes you wonder what Australia might do to its foes.

A similar message also came from Abbott. If spying is common practice, where are the ethics in international relations? Or, am I being naive asking this question? Are international politics so competitive and anarchic that even friends spy on each other?

Is trust impossible in international relations? Shall we not trust any country as international politics is, in essence, the pursuit of power and one'€™s interests?

If so, why say anything about being '€œgood friends'€? Why bother establishing institutions for cooperation such as the East Asian Summit or APEC? Where is the rhetoric on rule-based behaviors to which Western countries often refer? Or, is spying on allies one of the rules they refer to? The ethical approach is not the mainstream in international relations discipline, and apparently, it is much less so in reality.

The Australian defensive response also indicates that the spying activities were also conducted by Indonesia. Indeed, an article in The Australian on Nov. 20 reiterated an Indonesian top intelligence agency leader, who strangely admitted as much in an interview with the ABC in 2004.

It would be interesting to know whether Minister Natalegawa had known this information and whether he had approved such a strategy before stating that '€œ'€¦we don'€™t do it, we certainly should not be doing it among friends.'€

 In the Australian media, the Foreign Minister'€™s denial was said to be a double standard but for those who know the lack of coordination among Indonesian institutions, the statement reveals the continuing problem in the coordination of Indonesia'€™s foreign policy.

In addition, if such disgraceful activity is also undertaken by the Indonesia side, how much would Indonesia gain by intercepting? Given the sophistication of technology and the abundant budget that Australia and its four Western allies have for espionage, what could Indonesian intelligence get that the Australians do not know?

Once one has been reassured that spying is common practice in international relations, the next question is, who do you spy on? Australian elites have said many times that not only are Indonesia Australia'€™s
good friend and ally but also that Yudhoyono is the friendliest Indonesian President that Australia has ever encountered.

If such statements are true, why was Yudhoyono'€™s phone tapped? If the '€œfriendliest'€ president was tapped, it only makes you wonder what Australia might do to its foes. Countries that have any problems with Australia and its four Western allies must take precautions.

Defensive statements in the Australian media from some elites have said that the spying actually benefits Indonesia. They claim that the successful Indonesian efforts to identify and capture terrorists are due to the intelligence cooperation between the two countries.

Yet, as written in The Australian, the benefits for Indonesia are coincidental rather than deliberate. Has Australia not tapped the communications of Indonesian separatist leaders? How much does Australian intelligence know about the separatist movements in Indonesia?

Through the Lombok Treaty with Indonesia and in the Amity and Cooperation Treaty with ASEAN member countries, Australia has committed to acknowledging Indonesia'€™s sovereignty and the integrity of its territory.

Further, some Australians may refer to former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, who said that Jakarta'€™s anger was ritual and unlikely long-lasting. Indonesians are well-known for their easy going nature and often quickly forget and forgive, but they should also learn lessons from this case.

Coordination among state institutions and elites is vital for Indonesia'€™s national interests. Applying ethics in international relations is demanded and in line with civilized interactions, but international politics is too anarchic for such ideals. Perhaps scholars on ethics in international relations need to build more convincing arguments.

National interests are the point of reference for external relations, instead of the '€œ1,000 friends, zero enemies'€ as stated by our Foreign Minister. Trust is problematic in international relations. Do not trust anybody or any country and do not be appeased by the words '€œgood friend'€; as these words are toxic.


The writer is the head of the International Relations department, University of Indonesia, and editor of the Australia and Nations of the South Pacific: Observations and views from Indonesia.

Your premium period will expire in 0 day(s)

close x
Subscribe to get unlimited access Get 50% off now