The following PACIFIC PERSPECTIVES column was recently syndicated to newspaper editors in the U.S. and Asia.
By Tom Plate – A spat between Indonesia and Australia is not receiving proper attention in our media. This is predictable given American parochialism but, even so, it is causing serious heartburn in some Washington quarters — and genuine grief here on our more Pacific-sensitive West Coast.
The problem surfaced with recent evidence of significant Australian electronic spying on the very elite of Indonesian officialdom. Eavesdropping targets included President Yudhoyono, the first lady, the vice-president and other senior ministers. Further angst – and indeed embarrassment – was caused in Jakarta when it became known that top-secretive US-orchestrated electronic spying operations in Asia were emanating from none other than the Jakarta embassy of the Australian government.
Taken all together, this seemed to most sensible people like a whole lot of clandestine surveillance of – and in the midst of – an erstwhile friendly neighbor. After all, it’s not as if the current Indonesia government were a cancerous cabal of cutthroat Commie cannibals. On the contrary, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono – better known even by his own countrymen as SBY – is finishing up his second term as the country’s elected president in a democratic system that, for all its growing pains, bumps and grinds, has been improving steadily, every year of its operation suggesting that an Islamic country need not be autocratic.
So if there is one sovereign state in Southeast Asia with which the U.S. and its ally Australia might try to display utterly correct behavior, it might well be Indonesia. Why? Because after China, India and the U.S. itself, it is the world’s fourth most populated country – right, let’s say it again: fourth largest! Because its burgeoning democracy is home to more Muslims than any nation – almost three times as many as Egypt, which is in fact the world’s most populous Arab country. And because the U.S. faces all sorts of complicated issues with a vast array of Islamic countries – can’t we try to get this all-important relationship with Jakarta right?
But now there’s a hitch. It seems that our otherwise much-loved, long-time ally Australia sports a new government that likes to bang around on steroids like an early George W. Bush. In its single most important regional relationship, with Indonesia, with whom it has had an up-and-down history, the Tony Abbott government has already revealed an ugly side — carrying on with an almost colonial-overlord like attitude that is most unrepresentative of the gracious Australia many of us know and truly love. When the spying scandal materialized, what was needed was a simple and sincere across the board really-whatever-you-want apology. But Abbott acted as if an outright apology was beneath him, as if indeed he had only played his stereo too loudly after-hours – something trivial like that. And when SBY proposed that the two countries work out an explicit “code of ethics,” why didn’t the Aussie PM simply agree that was a very great idea and let’s get it done and thanks so very much indeed for suggesting it?
What a mess. Okay, it is quite true that Americans as a whole are blithely uninterested in any foreign country unless it poses a direct threat of some economic or military kind. With a mostly sweet Canada to the north and mostly mellow Mexico to the south, and the vastness of two huge oceans moating either side, the U.S. is almost like the West’s largest island nation. But we on the West Coast insist on noting that the U.S. has been in mortal combat within the territories of two Islamic countries (Afghanistan and Iraq) and has been struggling to improve horrible relations with a third (Iran). Might it not be in the U.S. interest to seek to maintain (perhaps even at almost all costs?) suave, cordial and even deferential relations with the largest Muslim country on the face of the earth? The answer is obvious, but given Australia’s Abbott, elected just this September, we might have to ask ourselves: With a friend like that, the head of our long-time Pacific ally, how tough will the diplomatic going get?
The Obama administration needs to watch this Aussie carefully and even be prepared to put some distance between itself and his government. Indonesian relations are too important to be sacrificed on the silly altar of a good-old-white-boy network. Many Indonesians believe it is in their best national interest to maintain good and close relations with the U.S. even as the volume of its bilateral trade with China roars skyward. Let’s not give Jakarta any reason for thinking otherwise.
And let’s not give the world the sense that electronic bullying, whether through remote-control drone attacks or electronic surveillance, is the wave of America’s international-relations future. Recent activity at the United Nations revealed almost unanimous revulsion about U.S. National Security Agency Orwellian-ism. Germany and Brazil, particular targets of NSA extraterritorial snooping, are pushing a draft resolution critical of the practices to the 193-General Assemblty for a vote in December. Perhaps Washington, not to mention Canberra, will get the message?
Veteran newspaper columnist Tom Plate, who recently visited Southeast Asia, is the author of the new book “In The Middle of The Future: Tom Plate on Asia,” as well as of the bestselling ‘Giants of Asia” book series, which includes the most recent “Conversations with Ban Ki-Moon.” He is a longtime university lecturer, now Loyola Marymount University’s Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies, and founder of The New Asia Media (www.asiamedia.lmu.edu)