The PM must have a mature and sophisticated approach to relations with Indonesia
In Jakarta last Friday Julie Bishop cited the Prime Minister as promising that ''the Abbott government will not undertake any act or use our assets and resources, including intelligence assets, in any way to harm Indonesia''.
Indonesia's Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa later told the ABC that Jakarta interprets this as a promise that Australia will not collect intelligence on Indonesia. But on Saturday Tony Abbott told Neil Mitchell quite categorically Australia has not promised that.
So what's going on? Confronted with Abbott's words over the weekend, Natalegawa suggested that Abbott's promise means that Australia will limit intelligence activities in Indonesia to official exchanges with Indonesia's own agencies.
That would mean our agencies would only get to know what Indonesia wants them to know. But that's not really intelligence at all, because the whole point of intelligence is to find out what others don't want you to know.
So either Abbott is not being straight with Indonesia, or he's not being straight with Neil Mitchell.
Perhaps Abbott and Bishop believe that their promise does not preclude intelligence collection in Indonesia because that does not harm Indonesia. They may even believe, as Abbott suggested in Parliament last month when the crisis first blew up, that Australian spying on Indonesia is actually good for it.
Abbott no doubt had in mind the help our intelligence agencies have given to Indonesia's fight against terrorism. But non-state targets such as terrorists are only a small part of the intelligence picture. With the huge power shifts now under way, the primary targets for intelligence agencies throughout Asia are other states and governments. It is a fair bet that the primary focus of Australian intelligence on Indonesia is the various parts of the Indonesian government itself.
And, of course, the Indonesians will regard any intelligence collection against their government as damaging their interests. If they didn't think it was in their interests to keep information from us, we wouldn't need to use intelligence methods to collect it in the first place. We could just ask them for it.
So Abbott is in a fix, and he can't get out of it by playing silly semantics. The problem is not entirely his fault, because Edward Snowden's revelations would have angered Jakarta whoever was prime minister. But his first dismissive response when the issue flared last month did make a bad situation much worse. If Abbott had shown more care, thought and tact then, this might have been quickly and painlessly settled.
Now he has made a promise to Jakarta that plainly precludes collecting intelligence against any arm of the Indonesian government, and it would be futile for him to try to spin it any other way. He cannot withdraw that promise without further damaging relations with Jakarta. So now he faces a second choice. Does he break that promise and tell the agencies to keep spying anyway, risking even worse damage to the relationship if they are exposed again? Or does he keep the promise, and tell the agencies to lay off?
His choice should depend not just on how much he values relations with Jakarta, but also on how much he values intelligence. Many people believe that intelligence is simply essential to national security, and that any limit on intelligence collection would inevitably make us less secure. Some of Abbott's language over the past few weeks suggests he may share this view.
But it is not as simple as that. First we must understand that intelligence by itself does not make us more secure. It just helps the government make better decisions about how to deal with the world around us.
So intelligence on Indonesia is valuable primarily to the extent that it helps us make better decisions about managing relations with our big neighbour. That means collecting intelligence at the cost of damaging that relationship might in some circumstances be self-defeating.
Second, we have to be realistic about how much intelligence really contributes to making good decisions. That depends a lot on the kind of decisions being made. It can be vital at the tactical level, in conducting military or police operations. But it is likely to be much less use for making decisions at the higher political and strategic level. And that seems to be the level where we are most likely to damage the relationship with Jakarta.
This means Abbott would make a big mistake if he simply assumes that Australia's intelligence collection with Indonesia is completely non-negotiable. Facing this regrettable choice, he needs to strike a mature and sophisticated balance between the value of unfettered intelligence collection on the one hand, and the importance of the relationship with Jakarta on the other. And he is the one who has described that as our most important overall international relationship.
Hugh White is professor of strategic studies at the strategic and defence studies centre, ANU. He has spent much of his career working in and with Australia's intelligence community.
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