Australia’s refusal to adequately engage with its nearest neighbour over the phone tapping scandal is a new expression of neocolonialism, writes Simon Copland.
The fallout from the Indonesian phone tapping controversy has hit a new level after Susilo Bamban Yudhoyono announced that Indonesia would suspend all co-operation on defence and people smuggling with Australia. At the surface it could potentially seem like an overreaction. But when you look at the way the federal government has treated recent standoffs, it makes absolute sense.
In essence the government is acting in many ways just as Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said they would when she commented on asylum seeker policy; “We’re not asking for Indonesia’s permission, we’re asking for their understanding.” But it has gone further than that. The Coalition has been indignant that Indonesia hasn’t ceded to its demands on asylum seeker policy and on phone tapping its response has basically been ‘sorry we got caught’. We’ve gone well past permission, and it seems like we don’t even care about understanding anymore. We’ll do what we want and then get frustrated when Indonesia says no.
Indonesian President Susilo Bamban Yudhoyono said that this response was ‘belittling’ to his country, but I would go one step further. It is a new expression of neocolonialism.
Ever since Indonesia gained its independence, it has been the victim of ongoing neocolonialism. The Western World has interfered in Indonesia economically, politically and even culturally, all for its own good. The approach from the Australian government sounds worryingly similar. It reeks of interference, with an attitude that says ‘we know what is best’ and ‘you should just deal with it’. You can even see this in Indonesian commuters’ responses to the scandal – a feeling of being interfered with by a stronger neighbour. It is not an approach that treats Indonesia as an equal, but rather as a place we can treat however we like.
It makes you understand why Indonesia is so angry. They are rightly concerned that Australia is interfering politically, an approach which is not just insulting, but fundamentally immoral.
But if the immorality of the policy isn’t bad enough, the fact that the government thinks it can get away with it is potentially even worse. With each step Indonesia has shown that it is unwilling to cop it from the Australia any more. Part of this is probably because we’ve crossed a line. But potentially more importantly, it is because the dynamics have changed from a time when this policy ‘worked’. Indonesia is now stronger than in the past, and on the issues of phone-tapping and asylum seekers it is in many ways able to hold the moral high ground. The fact that our government has been unable to recognise this – that it has tried to continue on the path of telling the Indonesian government to ‘just deal with it’ and expect that it will just work – shows a serious lack of understanding. A level of incompetency in foreign affairs that should make us all worried.
The Coalition has quickly made its mark early in the foreign policy arena. Unfortunately, it is an odd mixture of incompetence and neocolonialism. Individually the two elements are bad enough, but put them together and they are the worst form of foreign policy we could possible ask for.