Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The continuing diplomatic

argument between Australia and Indonesia over allegations that Australia spied on the Indonesian President and his wife is likely to continue for a while yet.
Our Prime Minister is, rightly, refusing to apologise. He is, rightly, refusing to comment on the allegations being made. 
Both sides know that spying occurs. If there are degrees of guilt in this matter then I suspect that Indonesia is more culpable than Australia.
Indonesia spies on its own citizens, both at home and abroad. I know. I have dealt with the problem. Indonesian students here are well aware that they are under constant surveillance. Malaysian students tell me the same thing.
If you want a job when you return home then you do and say the "right" thing all the time you are here.
That means more than observing Ramadan and, if you are a female, dressing appropriately and not being seen without your hijab. You are expected to keep your head down, study, pass your exams and not belong to anything other than a government approved organisation. Even becoming friendly with other students can pose problems.
I tutored Indonesian and Malaysian students and I know I was vetted first. I assume I was considered suitable and not likely to be a threat or the students would not have been permitted to get help from me.
The fact that at least some of them were the sons and daughters of high ranking officials did not bother me. I was there to help them with their academic work. That did bother me because some of them should not have been there. They were simply not good enough but they had been accepted and nobody dared fail them. It was, and still is, a diplomatic as well as academic issue. Everyone knows it occurs but nobody admits it.
Spying occurs in the same way. Everyone knows it happens. Nobody will admit it, or at least not in the way that is now being demanded.
President Obama made a major tactical blunder when he apologised to Chancellor Angela Merkel over spying allegations. In effect he was admitting what is never admitted, "Yes, we spy on you." Everyone knows it. You just don't admit it.
Indonesia has gone even further. It is demanding not just an apology - an admission they know the Australian government should not give - but an undertaking that any spying activity will cease. They know both demands are inappropriate but they will persist anyway. They will try to use the situation to their political advantage at home (for the forthcoming Presidential election) and abroad.
That is understandable but our Prime Minister also needs to stay firm and refuse to comment further. If the row escalates then Australia must not be the one to add fuel to the diplomatic flames.
We cannot allow ourselves to be used for Indonesian domestic politics.
Should we go on spying on Indonesia? Yes of course. It is a big country and one of our immediate neighbours. There are all sorts of tensions there. Jakarta knows that. It actually relies on Australia to spy - and inform.
It might even be said that good neighbours do spy on each other - for the best of reasons.

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