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December 05, 2013

Indonesia, Australia Mend Ties After Surveillance Scandal

by Lien Hoang

Australia has accepted Indonesia’s roadmap for an intelligence “code of conduct,” allaying some uncertainty about how far it was willing to go to make amends for eavesdropping on the Indonesian president through his cell phone.
 
Despite the fact that Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott initially declined to apologize for the spying and commit to a code of conduct, Julie Bishop, the country’s foreign minister agreed to Indonesia’s conditions during a visit to Jakarta on Thursday. Specifically, she said Australia would cooperate with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on his six-point plan to rebuild trust between their two countries.
 
“We regret the hurt caused to President Yudhoyono and to the Indonesian people,” Bishop said during her one-day visit, which itself was the first of the six steps.
 
The other steps involve drafting the code of conduct and evaluating its success. In the meantime, Canberra and Jakarta will put a “hotline” in place to improve communication.
 
The two otherwise friendly nations got entangled in the diplomatic spat last month, when the phone tapping came to light through documents released by Edward Snowden, the former U.S. National Security Agency contractor. The revelations widened the global scope of Snowden’s leaks, which had already alleged the United States conducted surveillance operations in France and Germany. Now, the six-point plan begins a test of whether Snowden’s disclosures will change the way governments gather intelligence on both their friends and enemies.
 
“I suspect that the matter will quietly fall away, presuming Australia's government doesn't do anything to make it worse in the coming months,” said Elisabeth Kramer, a candidate in the Department of Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney.
 
She reflected a general belief that it is inevitable that things will return to normal, with both Australia and Indonesia emerging largely unscathed. That would suggest that, despite the uproar that follows news of espionage, the scolding is brief and the fallout can be contained.

Questions linger
 
Which is not to say damage has been minimal. In response to the spying, Indonesia has refused cooperation on areas key to Australian interests, including terrorism and boat refugees. Here in the Indonesian capital, citizens took to the streets to burn pictures of Abbott, pelt eggs at the Australian embassy, and brandish signs reading, "Go to hell Australia."
 
“I don’t know why Australia did that to us,” said Veni Juniarti, a young accountant from Bandung, 160 kilometers southeast of Jakarta. She was “shocked” by the spying but looks forward to good relations with Australia. “We should go back to the way things were before, I hope.”
 
As Canberra refocuses on the “Asian Century,” Dave McRae, a specialist in Australia-Indonesia relations at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, said Indonesia has been important in supporting Australia’s involvement in regional cooperation, such as the East Asia summit. He said that factors into the process of winding down this row between the two large democracies.
 
“Certainly there are broader economic and strategic considerations at play,” McRae said.
 
Indonesian politicians of all stripes have burnished their nationalist credentials ahead of a 2014 election by wagging their fingers at Australia. That’s especially true for Yudhoyono, whose detractors call him a lame duck who cozies up to westerners. Cynics say the outrage was feigned for political gain because Indonesians already know they’re monitored.
 
McRae didn’t say whether Yudhoyono was genuinely insulted by Australia’s spying, but “whatever the president’s personal feelings, he also had a public audience to address.”
 
Bishop’s visit seemed to be good for that public audience, and for mending ties between Indonesia and Australia, which looks increasingly likely. As Kramer put it, “Our governments get over things pretty quickly.”