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Published in CRIKEY 08 November 2013

It is one thing to cultivate and flatter the disaffected daughter of the King, it’s quite another to stand behind the curtains when he visits his mistress.

The ancient if less than noble art of spying has been deployed from the time of collective settlement in order to prepare for attack or pre-emptive strike.

The sophistication and effectiveness of available tools has expanded the role and reach of information gathering for all major units of power both public and private. It has become a necessary component of competitive undertakings. Diplomatic networks and embassies are an important but not exclusive element in the network of spying undertaken by all states with varying degrees of sophistication and success. Such activity and methods of obtaining information are certainly not the sole preserve of the US.

But what did America think it was doing when it tapped the cell phone of Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor? Whatever the reason or rationalisation NSA provided to itself it had nothing to do with fighting international terrorism but a lot to do with American paranoia, revolving around a sense of declining power and influence.

America will do whatever it takes to maintain its pre-eminence in the world including, it seems, spying on all and sundry. Information is power; it can be traded for further information and used to counter trade deals, defence contracts and deployments.

Global competition, from whatever quarter, is a life and death struggle for America. As part of fighting these battles it expects unquestioning loyalty from close allies. Australia has declared itself to be such an ally and the price agreed upon is to do or die, most recently in Afghanistan.

Australia now hosts more listening facilities across the continent, on behalf of America, than ever before, but the diplomatic cost is increasing.

As Prime Minister, John Howard, using conventional communications, signalled to the world that Australia was the US Deputy Sheriff of the Asia/Pacific region. Events of the past few weeks have confirmed that his statement was more than bluster.

Wiki leaks demonstrated that nothing was too bland or puerile for inclusion in American diplomatic cables; Snowden has shown the extent to which the US has been prepared to go to obtain that information. Diplomats deal in and love gossip, so it seems does NASA.

Forelock tugging has won Australia the right to spy on its neighbours, embarrassingly it has been outed. Did Australia’s pedestrian and mediocre spy chiefs and their equally mediocre political masters really believe they could keep secret their contracted spying? America and Americans cannot keep secrets. Time and good intent has worked to reveal some very dirty linen. Australia has been forced to confront dirty dealings over East Timor and the same will occur with respect to Sri Lanka.

Indonesia would expect Australia to engage in information gathering. If they wanted to downplay reports that Australia has been spying on them on behalf of the United States, they would have issued a statement saying they did not believe the reports and that would ended the matter, instead they have chosen to up the ante. Why? There are a number of possible reasons, the first being that the matter has become public so it must be addressed. But as stated they might have killed the story with a different response. What is likely to have been of irritation and annoyance to them is the fact that Australia is apparently prepared to act on behalf of the US as a South Asian surrogate of a super power about whom they have mixed feelings. They are wary that American rivalry with China has the potential to cause regional instability and they don’t like what they see as US hostility to Islam. Nonetheless they recognise that the US has a legitimate role in the region. Naturally enough they would like that role to be open, and to be conducted by the US.

Australia looks sneaky, in hiding US security interests behind the doors of its embassies and consulates. Australia has lost face, although it seems that Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop have not as yet been made aware of it by their departments and advisers. Face, as they will come to appreciate, is important in Asia, particularly in Indonesia.

A mis-reading of the relationship with Indonesia and how to handle that relationship also lies behind the strength of the Indonesian response. Marty Natalegawa is a good foreign minister. He understands Australia, Australian thinking and politics, which is more than can be said for his Australian counterpart. But understanding doesn’t equate with like or respect.

What we are witnessing is bubbling over of resentment that has been quietly boiling away for some time. Howard’s regional deals on the issue of boats and refugees with local Indonesian police and military officers were resented in Jakarta, but for the sake of the relationship Indonesia acquiesced.

Kevin Rudd caused anger over his insistence that Indonesia accept responsibility for refugees aboard the Australian customs vessel, Oceanic Viking, in November 2009. Abbott, Bishop and Morrison caused anger over statements, before the recent election, that refugee vessels would be towed back to Indonesia. These statements were unilateral and conveyed in a manner which implied Indonesian compliance. It was a crude display and not dispelled by the clumsy diplomacy so far deployed by Abbott and Bishop.

At a deeper level the Indonesians do not like what they see as Australian exceptionalism, which all too often translates into an arrogance they perceive as being related to racism. They believe our attitudes to refugees to be selfish. They resent that sixty eight years after Independence that ties are not stronger and deeper and that Indonesian culture and language is not more widely understood and appreciated in Australia. They feel they understand us much better than we understand them and that they make more compromises in the relationship than we do.

Indonesia is upset with us for being the stalking horse of the US in covert spying operations for information, much of which might have been obtained through goodwill if we had bothered to put some depth into the relationship.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat.