Australian Gaffes Explode Into Indonesian Diplomatic Crisis

By Laura Gumbs 22 November 2013

Australia’s stumbling Abbott government has managed to insult two Asian nations over spying allegations, with a key advisor to the prime minister tweeting that Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa resembled a 1970s Filipino porn star.

The row over the tweet is just one of an astonishing string of gaffes by a government in Canberra that appears increasingly inept on the international front and risks doing lasting damage to Australia’s position in the Asian Century.

The tweet, by Mark Textor, the ruling Liberal Party’s pollster and chief strategist, overshadowed Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s statement to Parliament in Canberra that he would do everything he “reasonably can” to repair relations with Jakarta.

Textor immediately removed the tweet, which read “Apology demanded from Australia by a bloke who looks like a 1970’s Pilipino [sic] porn star and has ethics to match,” He has since apologized volubly and said he wasn’t referring to anyone in particular, although Natalegawa is the foreign minister and the man who demanded the apology from Australia.

“Apologies to my Indonesian friends—frustrated by media-driven divisions—Twitter is indeed no place for diplomacy,” he tweeted Thursday. While Textor is not a member of the government, his proximity to power is close enough to outrage the Indonesians.

With protesters in the streets of Jakarta demanding war—although Indonesia’s war machine is no match for Australia’s—the  government, led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, has managed to alienate large swaths of not just Indonesia but much of Asia over a series of missteps, the latest when the premier ignored a call for an apology over revelations that Australian spymasters had tapped the telephones of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the president’s wife, and eight cabinet ministers. Certainly it has driven down relations between the two countries by a good two decades.

“Had Abbott just picked up the phone, called SBY, and said ‘This is very embarrassing but I want to tell you we are really very sorry and anyway it was all [former Prime Minister] Kevin Rudd’s fault,’ they could have contained this,” said a western political observer in Jakarta. “You can count on the Indonesians to ramp it up.”

The “ramping up” included violence both Wednesday and Thursday, with hundreds of demonstrators, some in military fatigues, in front of the Australian Embassy to burn flags and spray red paint on the front wall of the structure. Police had to move in to restrain the demonstrators. On Wednesday, Australia issued a travel warning for “civil unrest and political tension” due to the likelihood of violent protests in Jakarta.  Members of the nationalist organization, Laskar Merah Putih, burned Australian flags in indignation, protesting the attack on Indonesia’s sovereignty and the Abbot’s refusal to apologize. The demonstration called for expulsion of all Australian diplomats from Indonesia and a boycott of Australian products.

The allegations of Australian spying and now even Australian hacking have exploded in the Indonesian media, with every Indonesian minister in Parliament making strong statements and Indonesia backing up its ire with diplomatic scolding. Australia, however, has remained true to its current policy of media silence, refusing to comment on security and intelligence gathering activities and stubbornly evading a direct apology, which is what Indonesia wants and which could now amount to too little, too late.

Yudhoyono said on Wednesday that Indonesia would freeze several bilateral projects, including operations to stem the influx of undocumented migrants from the Middle East, joint military exercises and the exchange of intelligence information, until the air had been cleared. Indonesia pulled its F-16 fighter jets from participating in a joint military exercise in Darwin and has ceased joint military exercises being run by the Australian Special Forces.

Indonesia’s Attorney General Basrief Arief also said he is on standby to refrain from working with the Australian Attorney General’s Office, perhaps pending the response to SBY’s letter.

“People smuggling is a problem for Indonesia and Australia [and] we have a cooperation framework called the coordinated military operations [or] the coordinated sea patrols. I have asked for it to be suspended. We cannot continue such shared duties,” Yudhoyono said in his first press conference after the snooping revelations came to light.

Whether the immediate ructions can be calmed down by Abbott’s statement to the Australian Parliament is one thing. The bigger question is the long-term damage the new government, which came to power in September, is doing with its actions, with such unnecessary statements as one by his foreign minister, Julie Bishop, that Japan is Australia’s “best friend in Asia,” a statement not looked kindly upon by the Chinese, Australia’s biggest trading partner, or the South Koreans, who are embroiled in a multi-level dispute with the Japanese.

Even before the September election, Abbott had already put Indonesians’ backs up with campaign rhetoric that he would turn back the boats of asylum seekers, a pledge that he almost immediately put in practice once taking office.

Two weeks ago that culminated in an embarrassing standoff when an Australian navy ship answered a call for help to pick up a boatload of asylum seekers in Indonesian waters. When the ship sought permission to drop off the asylum seekers at the nearest Indonesian port, the Indonesians turned them down. Finally the Australians were forced to ferry the asylum seekers to Christmas Island in Australian territory.

Exchanges between the two countries ended up with growing tensions in which hackers attacked hundreds of Australian and government websites.

Australia has alienated other Asian countries with Abbott’s order to nullify climate change research. He angered the Chinese government with a decision to deny the Chinese telecoms company Huawei the right to bid on Australian telecoms projects and offered to lower the current Foreign Investment Board threshold on overseas purchases of agricultural land, from A$248 million (US$232 million) to A$15 million (US$14 million).

Now Australia’s closest Asian neighbor has been insulted unintentionally enough, but what started out as a thorny but manageable issue rather sadly bids fair to be the catalyst for a far more guarded foreign policy regarding Australia. With elections in Indonesia due in less than a year, a future leader may be exceedingly conscious of affronts and will see no point in courting public disfavor at home by genuflecting toward Australia.