LOS ANGELES — 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 Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the first lady, Ani Bambang Yudhoyono, the vice president. Boediono, and other senior ministers. Further angst — and indeed embarrassment — was caused in Jakarta when it became known that top-secretive United States-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 cut-throat 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 US and its ally Australia might try to display utterly correct behavior, it might well be Indonesia. Why? Because after China, India and the US, 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 US 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 Australian 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. O.K., 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 US is almost like the West’s largest island nation. But we on the West Coast insist on noting that the US 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 US 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 longtime Pacific ally, how tough will the diplomatic going get?
The Obama administration needs to watch this Australian 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, close relations with the US 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 US National Security Agency Orwellianism. Germany and Brazil, particular targets of N.S.A. extraterritorial snooping, are pushing a draft resolution critical of the practices to the 193-member General Assembly for a vote in December. Perhaps Washington, not to mention Canberra, will get the message?
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Tom Plate is a veteran newspaper columnist who is the author of the new book, “In The Middle of The Future:Tom Plate on Asia,” as well as the best-selling “Giants of Asia” book series, which includes the most recent “Conversations With Ban Ki-Moon.” Plate, a longtime university lecturer, is Loyola Marymount University’s Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies and the founder of The New Asia Media (www.asiamedia.lmu.edu), a publication of Loyola Marymount.