New pressure on Australia-Indonesia ties

19-Feb-2014 Intellasia | SBS | 6:00 AM Print This Post

Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is under renewed pressure after a leak of a classified document suggesting Australia passed on information gained by intelligence operations to the United States.

The latest leak cames as US Secretary of State John Kerry was visiting Indonesia and as tensions simmer between Australia and Jakarta over the policy to turn back people-smuggling boats.

Amanda Cavill has the details.

The leaked top-secret document was obtained by former US National Security Agency (NSA) systems analyst Edward Snowden, who has fled the United States and is living in Russia to try to escape prosecution.


It relates to surveillance by the Australian Signals directorate (ASD), which provides foreign signals intelligence to the Australian government to support military and strategic decision-making.

Media reports say the document shows the ASD notified the NSA it was conducting surveillance of an American law firm that was representing Indonesia in trade disputes with the US.

The ASD is said to have offered to share the information it obtained with the NSA, and provided highly useful intelligence for US companies.

Prime minister Tony Abbott says the government doesn’t comment on operational matters, but intelligence is never used for commercial gain.

“Australia did not use any intelligence it gathers to the detriment of other countries. We use it for the benefit of our friends. We use it to uphold our values. We use it to protect our citizens and the citizens of other countries. We certainly don’t use it for commercial purposes.”

James Lewis a researcher with the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

He says he is confident the Australian agency would have been told to minimise any information it passed on about Americans.

Lewis has told the ABC that under US law, the Defence Signal directorate would have been asked to make sure limited specific information was passed on.

“One of the things that’s come up repeatedly in this debate is, does NSA use foreign partners to spy on Americans? And the answer from our courts, from our Congress and from the agency itself is: no, the foreign partners have to treat American citizens’ collection the same way they woulda? the NSA would. If NSA can’t collect on them, we don’t ask our foreign partners to collect. So I’m sure the guidance they gave back were these minimisation procedures.”

Indonesia has been embroiled in trade disputes with the US over its exports of clove cigarettes and prawns in recent years.

The leaked document did not say which trade dispute was monitored, nor name the US law firm involved.

Meanwhile, Tony Abbott is downplaying Indonesian threats to raise concerns over border protection with the United States.

He was commenting on a statement by Indonesian Foreign minister Marty Natalegawa that issues of Australian border policy were on the agenda for a visit by US Secretary of State John Kerry.

The latest tensions over border protection has been sparked by Australia’s use of lifeboats to send asylum seekers back to Indonesia, and follows months of anger at the Abbott government’s boat towbacks.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten says he’s concerned Australia’s relationship with Indonesia has deteriorated significantly.

Shorten has blamed the tension between the two countries on the Abbott government’s immigration policy.

“I am concerned that in the course of five and a half months, Tony Abbott has taken our relationship with Indonesia from hero to zero. Indonesia is an important part of our neighbourhood. I think the goverment needs to do everything it can to build bridges with Indonesia. And that should be a foreign policy priority.”

But Abbott says he’s pleased Indonesia and the US are engaging in discussions.

“I am very pleased that the Indonesians and the Americans are engaging in discussions, because it’s right and proper that two friends of Australia should be talking regularly and deeply with each other. What they discuss is entirely a matter for them.”

Last week, Indonesia called in the Australian Ambassador in Jakarta over concerns about the ‘turn back the boats’ policy.

Foreign minister Julie Bishop admits there are some challenges in relations with Indonesia, but says overall, relations are sound.



Category: Regional

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