Clumsy Confections on all Sides

by 8 Degrees of Latitude

Nick Feik, editor of the online newspaper PoliticsOz, wrote this in his editorial note today (Feb. 17):

TERRITORIAL TENSIONS

The Indonesian government had only just finished protesting to Australian ambassador Greg Moriarty over the Abbott government’s border protection policies when its foreign minister Marty Natalegawa was again fronting the media to object to Australian conduct.

On Friday it was revealed that Indonesian armed forces believe the Australian navy breached its maritime borders knowingly and intentionally, on several occasions.

But yesterday Natalegawa was referring to the latest spying allegations reported in theNew York Times, that the Australian Signals Directorate had listened in and passed on to the US the communications of an American law firm which was representing Indonesia in trade discussions with America. The Australian and US governments have also been sharing mass telecommunications intercepts, according to the new Snowden leaks.

Indonesia’s patience with the Australian government is now threadbare.

In news that may or may not be related, a fleet of Chinese naval vessels has passed through Indonesian territorial waters close to Christmas Island, in what was describedby the Jakarta Post as an unprecedented exercise. American secretary of state John Kerry, visiting Indonesia this week, will doubtless urge Indonesia not to accommodate China’s increasingly aggressive territorial manoeuvres. For its part, Indonesia plans to raise Australia’s naval incursions into its waters with Kerry, as well as the raft of spying allegations.

But as these discussions will be conducted behind closed doors, we can only guess at the real state of affairs, and try to read the coded language of international diplomacy.

“It is the responsibility of (US & Australia) … to salvage their bilateral relations with Indonesia,” said Natalegawa.

Whereas Julie Bishop maintains that relations with the Indonesian government are “very positive”.

This is all fine, so far as it goes. Unfortunately it doesn’t go far enough. It takes no notice of the other side of the coin.

It is, granted, foolish to rattle the cage with the Indonesians in the lead-up to the legislative and presidential elections this year. Some of the official comment from the Australian side has been unhelpful. Some might say gauche.

But this confection of peril, for that is what all this is, essentially, gives Indonesian politicians an opportunity to focus on foreign impertinence rather than the substantial policy failures at home for which they are responsible. It risks inflaming public feelings by banging the nationalist drum when no such response is justified.

So yes, in regard to the spying allegations, both Australia and the U.S. have broken the first rule of intelligence-gathering, which is “Don’t get caught.” But even there, there’s a rider. They got caught because of the malfeasance of Edward Snowden, another of the bothersome clowns who – armed with mega-data – declare that they are setting out to save the world.

The spying row aside, Australia’s deep problem with Indonesia over the so-called boat people is also not entirely of Canberra’s commission. Indonesia says it doesn’t want asylum seekers in the country, yet until very recently it has done little or nothing to stop them.

The problem is that people are rightly free to travel and are entitled, with the required visas, to travel anywhere they want. In the case of asylum seekers arriving in Indonesia, it’s what happens then that matters. They disappear and become the clients (they are not the victims) of people smugglers.

In the Indonesian fashion, where sluggish and inattentive bureaucracy slumbers at its desk and corruption is virtually an official pastime, nothing much is done to stop the people smugglers. Until someone complains – for example Canberra – and someone in Indonesia stirs themselves into action. Generally, this energy is temporary. That’s what Indonesia is like.

Add to this the fact that from the Indonesian perspective the best policy option is to ignore the presence of people intending to commit a crime (leaving an Indonesian port without notice) because this will remove them from Indonesia. It passes the problem, such as it is and since it is politically defined as a problem in Australia, onto Canberra. Let them deal with it, is the view.

The international political problem has been worsened by the Abbott Government’s even harder line on boats approaching Australian waters. It has taken this approach for domestic political reasons. There is no security threat present. The people on board the boats (excepting the remote chance that some fanatic might be posing as a refugee) are fixed on one aim: securing a better life for themselves and their families.

This needs to be seen in context too. So-called economic refugees are now a fact of global life. They are part of the new international political architecture. Sometime soon, Australia will have to find the moral fortitude to deal with the real problem and not its minuscule side-effect. Better to work for proper global management of elective population movement than buy lifeboats so you can get the navy to send the few unfortunates you find breaching your maritime zone back to Indonesia.

It’s not in Australia’s interest to have a row with Indonesia. Especially on something as no-win as the boat people.

It bears mentioning that the unconscionable policy of the Australian government appears to have staunched the flow of boats. From that pernicious and narrow policy perspective, it would have to be judged a success.

But that doesn’t mean Australians – or their government – should forget that the real feet of clay on the difficult issue of asylum seekers transiting Indonesia are under big desks in Jakarta, not Canberra.

That’s something someone should tell Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, who apparently believes it is up to Australia (and the U.S.) to work to maintain relations with Indonesia.

Cooperation and neighbourliness is a two-way street.