Spying on friends: how would we feel?
20 Nov 2013|

That Australia spies on Indonesia comes as no particular surprise—most people would assume that our security agencies keep an eye on what is going on in the region. However, what has generated the current furore is not the general picture but rather the specifics that Australia has been monitoring—or at least has made very good attempts to monitor—the private conversations of President Yudhoyono, his wife and his entourage.

People in Australia—up to and including the Prime Minister—who try to shrug this off as business as usual seem to miss a couple of important points. The first question to consider is what could possibly be the benefit to Australian security of monitoring these private conversations? The answer is ‘none’. Secondly, Australian politicians from all sides have repeatedly made the perfectly logical and fair point that Indonesia is a very important friend. In which case, why has this sort of monitoring been taking place? Are we also listening in to the private conversations of John Key, the New Zealand Prime Minister and his wife? In the (hopefully unlikely) event that were to be true, then our agencies are completely out of control and are acting against the national interest by putting at risk a very important relationship.

Indonesia has clearly telegraphed the level of deep unhappiness about this ongoing issue. Indeed for President Yudhoyono to publicly express his unhappiness by the use of Twitter is unprecedented. If Australia doesn’t address these concerns then the repercussions for the bilateral relationship could be extremely serious. A lot of damage has already been done and it’s likely to become worse unless Australia takes the relatively simple step of indicating that the private conversations of the leadership of nations considered good friends of Australia won’t be targeted. If this doesn’t happen, Indonesia has a number of options—most immediately to cease cooperating on matters such as transnational crime in general and people smuggling in particular.

Some commentators are attempting to run the argument that says Indonesia does the same thing to Australia and so everything is justified. This argument is nonsense. Indonesia doesn’t have the means to conduct the same sort of monitoring that Australia can undertake thanks to the UKUSA agreement. Indonesia has the capacity for fairly low level espionage and signals intelligence work. Jakarta doesn’t have access to a vast array of satellites, SIGINT aircraft and ground-based facilities such as those that exist at Geraldton in West Australia.

But while Indonesia has lacked SIGINT capabilities in the past, this is now likely to change rapidly. It isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that Indonesia will quickly invest significant resources into this domain—and will look for a technology partner to rapidly increase domestic capabilities. It clearly won’t be Australia or the United States—so what will be the reaction if Indonesia turns to China for assistance? Relations between the two countries are reasonable—and they’re even jointly developing an advanced anti-ship missile. China has considerable SIGINT capabilities of its own—and one suspects that Beijing would be delighted to help out another nation in the region with some technology transfer and training.

Finally, one wonders how Australians would react if it were to be revealed that Indonesia was monitoring the family conversations of our senior politicians? Despite decades of warm words from a large number of senior Australians, it seems to remain the case that far too many of them remain comfortable only when working in the Anglosphere.

Kym Bergmann is the editor of Asia Pacific Defence Reporter & Defence Review Asia. This post is reproduced from APDR with kind permission . Image courtesy of Twitter user @SBYudhoyono.