Friday, February 7, 2014

Australia & Indonesia Political reality of shadow boxing

Australia & Indonesia Political reality of shadow boxing

Two households both alike in dignity,

From ancient grudge break to new maturity.

William Shakespeare in the prologue to Romeo and Juliet.
HAVE ever two star-crossed lovers been destined to more marital strife, ongoing intimate discord, profound mutual misunderstanding but unbreakable ties of common interest than Indonesia and Australia?

HAVE ever two star-crossed lovers been destined to more marital strife, ongoing intimate discord, profound mutual misunderstanding but unbreakable ties of common interest than Indonesia and Australia?

This week the dispute surrounding the Abbott government's boat turn-back policy has become bitter, but the bitterness is not between Jakarta and Canberra. It is rather between the Abbott government and the Australian Defence Force on one side, and the ABC and Fairfax Media on the other.

Defence Minister David Johnston is a media-shy, low-profile, eminently decent man. His bitter attack on the ABC's misreporting of inherently incredible allegations of torture and brutality against the Australian navy reflect not only his own anger, but the feeling of many service personnel.

You can understand where Johnston is coming from. Australian sailors have engaged in countless acts of heroism to save asylum-seekers from drowning. Our sailors are among the world's finest, are superbly trained and unstoppably brave. When you are the swimmer on the watch and you are tasked with leaping into swirling seas to save the lives of boatpeople, it's no joke.

The systematic vilification of Australian sailors is part of the long battle of wills between the people-smuggling industry and the Australian government. It has many parallels in Europe.

Oddly enough, though, during this week it looked as though the Canberra-Jakarta relationship itself was showing some level of equilibrium and resilience.

Schapelle Corby should not be mixed into the politics of this business but it is fair to observe that if Indonesia were in the grip of roiling anti-Australian sentiment she would be unlikely to be released.

But here is a more important indicator. Before the Gillard government suddenly suspended the export of live cattle to Indonesia from Australia in 2011, the export trade had built up to 700,000 cattle a year. After the suspension was lifted, Jakarta - furious at having this happen without consultation, and having its food security threatened by a friend - imposed its own sharp quotas on the trade, which fell to 200,000 beasts a year. This year, with the quotas quietly lifted, the trade will be back to 700,000. That would not happen if the relationship were in total meltdown or crisis.

The Canberra/Jakarta imbroglio over boats is intensely complex, with many different moving parts. So far the Abbott government has handled it with operational and diplomatic competence. But it poses a broader challenge to Australia's political maturity. The imbroglio involves a serious disagreement between Jakarta and Canberra.

The government of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono would rather Australia did not turn boats around and tow them back to the edge of Indonesian waters. The Abbott government has decided that this is the only effective way to combat people-smuggling, an illegal industry the Indonesian government itself opposes.

The hysterical reaction among ABC and Fairfax commentators to this disagreement puts a question mark not over the Abbott government, but over the broader maturity of the Australian political class.

The question is whether the political and commentator class is capable of analysing and responding to a policy disagreement between Australia and Indonesia with anything approaching calmness, rationality, balance, a sense of proportion and some basic knowledge.

By far the most foolish analysis, important only because it is representative, was written by Laura Tingle in The Australian Financial Review. She wrote that: "The Indonesian navy is now not patrolling looking for asylum-seeker boats but for the Australian navy."

This is completely untrue and was never true at any point.

Tingle went on: "Indonesia watchers also warn of even darker currents. They point out that China has already provided naval patrol assistance to both Fiji and Vanuatu. An overstretched and very pissed-off Indonesia might be prepared to consider also accepting some assistance."

To compare the strategic outlook of Indonesia with that of Vanuatu is almost deranged. But to think that a disagreement with Canberra over boatpeople would lead to a fundamental pro-Chinese strategic realignment by Jakarta, or that sovereignty-obsessed Indonesia would allow the Chinese to take over patrolling duties in its coastal waters, is beyond absurdity. That a senior member of the Canberra press gallery could print such infantile nonsense, which could only emerge from a complete lack of knowledge about anything to do with Indonesia's strategic culture, demonstrates how extremely ill-equipped many mainstream commentators are to deal with anything related to Indonesia at all.

Such sentences are an insult to the intelligence of The Australian Financial Review's readers and severely degrade the Australian policy debate.

So what really is going on with Indonesia?

It's important to try to have some sense of both sequence and context.

The Indonesian government suspended co-operation with Australia on combating people-smuggling not as a result of Tony Abbott's boats policy but in response to revelations by Edward Snowden that our intelligence agencies had tapped the phones of the Indonesian President, his wife and senior associates. These actions occurred when Kevin Rudd was prime minister and were approved by cabinet ministers.

The Indonesians themselves want people-smuggling to stop but have no idea how to achieve this. Their only policy suggestion is further region-wide talks under the Bali Process. There is nothing wrong with such talks but they don't constitute action on people-smuggling. Such talks have been going on for years and produced nothing much.

That is not to say that regional co-operation is not important. The Abbott government has been working hard with regional governments. Just this week it announced the donation of two Customs vessels to Malaysia for use in combating people-smuggling. That the Malaysians would accept such a gift is a sign of a very good relationship.

Jakarta ended co-operation on people-smuggling because it thought this would hurt the Abbott government and make it more likely to yield to its demands, mainly a promise of no further spying, arising from the Snowden issues. The chief real consequence

was that Australian personnel no longer participate in land-based disruption activities against people-smuggling syndicates within Indonesia. Typically, Australian agencies provided the funding, and some of the intelligence, for such operations. These are now much less frequent and effective.

Jakarta held that no nation should undertake unilateral actions. But this suspension virtually forced Canberra down a unilateral road.

Apart from Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, the two key figures in the government operation are Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell and the head of Customs, Mike Pezzullo. Much rightly has been written about the effectiveness of Campbell, but Pezzullo is also a hero here. A former deputy secretary of the Defence Department, he is relentlessly energetic and has a hyper problem-solving, can-do approach. Between the two of them, they came up with the innovation of using virtually unsinkable lifeboats to return asylum-seekers to Indonesia if they disabled their own boats.

Thinking one step ahead of the people-smugglers has been critical to the success, so far, of Operation Sovereign Borders.

The Indonesians have been hostile to the boats turnaround policy itself, and to the minor, incidental breach of their sovereign territorial waters by the Australian Navy. But again, the sequencing and timing of these reactions is important.

The Indonesian government did not react to these events when it first heard about them. At every point Canberra has kept Jakarta meticulously informed of what it is doing. Jakarta reacted only when these became issues within the Indonesian media and politics. With elections looming in Indonesia, a whiff of anti-Canberra sentiment is as useful in Jakarta as it often is in Perth.

Inquirer can reveal exactly how the breach of Indonesian sovereign waters by the Australian Navy occurred. The 12 nautical mile zone of a nation's sovereign waters is not calculated just by being 12n/m from the shore at every point. Rather, to calculate this zone you draw a series of straight lines from 12n/m out from one headland, the point of the mainland jutting farthest out to the sea, to the next salient point. Thus if the shoreline in part is shaped like a large bay, the 12n/m sovereign zone will be considerably more than 12n/m out from the inward curve of the bay. Thus Australian ships at all points were attempting to be 12n/m from the Indonesian shore, but when they communicated to the Indonesians the precise points at which they had turned around the various boats the Indonesians calculated these on a map and came to the conclusion that, technically at least, they breached Indonesia's sovereign waters.

At least some Indonesians would have been happy if the Australians had promised not to do it again and shut up about it. But the Australian authorities decided they needed to tell the truth and publicly apologised.

This led to some bellicose statements by an Indonesian air force spokesman that the The Australian Financial Review misinterpreted so wildly. But a day or two later, Senior Security Minister Djoko Suyanto got his spokesman to say: "The increased security measures in the southern part of the country is in order to anticipate increased illegal migrant activities."

Not the least of the ironies of this situation is it appears all to have been a typical Jakarta shadow play anyway. It is unclear that any Indonesian military assets have been moved at all, though this did not stop the aforementioned Financial Review article seriously claiming, with utter fatuousness, there was a chance of someone in Indonesia's or Australia's militaries firing "a pot shot" at each other.

It is the case that Indonesian politics is complex, fissiparous, culture-specific, high-context and difficult for outsiders to follow. It is also the case that in the repertoire of the international people-smuggling industry blackening the reputation of Western law enforcement and military agencies, and hopefully therefore provoking litigation and paralysing inquiries, is a standard piece. The Australian political class needs a great deal more sophistication and, frankly, a great deal more basic knowledge, to cope effectively with these challenging realities. ‘The Australian’ byk Greg Sheriden

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