It may be that the letter sent by Prime Minister Tony Abbott to Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will start to calm diplomatic tensions between the two countries. Given political sensitivities in Jakarta, it also may be that tensions will continue in any case, particularly if the letter is deemed inadequate.
But what is becoming increasingly clear is that Australia’s close relationship to Indonesia, developed especially since Yudhoyono has been in office and at its strongest just a couple of months ago, may remain in reverse for a lot longer to come. This is likely to be the case even if the immediate diplomatic row is resolved.
There are three key drivers to the dispute, at least one of which will continue to affect the relationship regardless of the impact of Abbott’s letter. The first driver of the dispute is that Yudhoyono is both angry and dismayed that he, his wife and senior officials had been directly spied on. As a former army general, he was well aware of the vulnerability of mobile phones to intercepts, and he is unlikely to have conveyed particularly sensitive information using it.
But Yudhoyono has gone out of his way to befriend Australia, often to domestic criticism, and now feels personally betrayed. To fix this, a letter and perhaps even a phone call to Yudhoyono are now probably too little, too late. According to senior Indonesian political academic Professor Bahtiar Effendy, Abbott needs to get on a plane and talk this through face-to-face. He will probably also need to propose an intelligence code of conduct.
“The bilateral relationship over the next 10 months ahead of Indonesia’s elections will be, at best, cool.”
This then raises the second driver; Abbott’s diplomatic skills. His comments in Parliament were seen to diminish the importance of the matter and thus entrenched a pre-existing antipathy from Yudhoyono. Abbott had already alienated Indonesia’s political leadership while in opposition, with his “turn back the boats” policy playing very poorly in Jakarta.
This was made worse during his September visit to Bali, when he showed up late for two functions and excluded the Indonesia media from a press conference. Yudhoyono was said to have made sure he did not sit next to Abbott at the APEC summit dinner.
Indonesia’s media, insulted by their exclusion, now regard Abbott as fair game.
Moreover, Abbott’s front-footed political style goes down poorly in Indonesia, where it is regarded as coarse. This “coarse” perception was made worse by government pollster Mark Textor tweeting “that bloke who looks like a 1970s Filipino porn star”, understood as referring to Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa.
The third and now most important driver in the bilateral relationship is that Yudhoyono and his Democratic Party have been tracking poorly in polls and he is seen as a weak leader. Although he cannot stand for re-election in the presidential elections next year, he wants to anoint a successor. To do so, he needs to be seen to be strong. Standing up to Australia is, now, not just an easy option but a necessary one.
It’s also necessary for the rest of the field of likely candidates in the elections. None are as well-disposed towards Australia as Yudhoyono has been and all have jumped on the nationalist, anti-Australia band-wagon.
Regardless of Abbott’s letter to Yudhoyono, the negative perception of Australia will now not come off Indonesia’s nationalist agenda. The bilateral relationship over the next 10 months ahead of Indonesia’s elections will be, at best, cool.
Depending on the outcome of those elections, Australia’s relationship with the growing regional economic and strategic power could turn even colder.
* Professor Damien Kingsbury is Director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University