When writing as an analyst, I generally (not always) try to divorce my personal views from my writing. Still, there is something rather depressing about the way in which the Australian Government's aggressive stop the boats policy seems to be complicating relations with Indonesia, playing into domestic politics in both countries.
This story from the ABC, Indonesia probes asylum seekers' burns as Scott Morrison rejects 'sledging' of Navy, together with this story from the SMH, Tony Abbott to Indonesian President SBY: We will continue to secure our borders, will give you a feel for some of the reporting on the Australian side. This piece by Stephen Grenville in the Lowery Interpreter blog, The role of the press in Australia-Indonesia relations focuses on the attitudes of the Australian
On the Indonesian side, the Jakarta Globe reports Indonesia Steps Up Patrols, Lashes Out at Abbott for ‘Sovereignty’ Statement, while the Jakarta Post headline reads Tension with OZ escalates as RI deploys warships. The Jakarta Post also reports in TNI gears up, sets sights on foreign threats on plans to restructure the Indonesian Defence forces to increase defensive and potentially offensive capabilities. I quote from that story:
House of Representatives defense, intelligence and foreign affairs committee member Susaningtyas Handayani Kertopati said the TNI should strengthen its “outward-looking” approach at a time when there were signs of escalating threats.
“The greatest threat will obviously be from Australia,” she said.
Just recently, Australia apologized to Indonesia after its border patrol boats entered Indonesian territorial waters without permission in their bid to stop migrants.
A Defense Ministry official has warned that Australia’s “tow-back” policy may soon ignite conflict.
In the midst of all this, Australia appears to be trying to counter at Indonesian grass roots level: Australia to Aid Jakarta, Makassar in Water Management Programs. One wonder about the success of these efforts.
In the end, Mr Abbott may well stop the boats; he is prepared to be ruthless enough. However, I do worry about the longer term costs to both countries.
Today (Friday 24 January 2014), the Australian media is full of this story. Some of the reporting is quite breathless; look at this piece from Robert Gottliebsen - How Indonesia will control Australian migration. This is actually very silly stuff. Note the use of the Jakarta Post as a primary source.
In the Australian Financial Review, Laura Tingle's We are prepared for a clash, Jakarta warns is far more objective. Note again the use of the Jakarta Post as a primary source.
Far more damaging to the current Australian Government is a later opinion piece by Laura Tingle in the same paper, "Australia crosses a thin blue line of credibility." I can't give a link. Why more damaging? Well, based on my reading of her pieces, Ms Tingle is hardly a bleeding heart liberal.
The underlying question she poses is can you believe the Australian Government or, indeed, the Australian Defence Forces? Her answer appears to be no. I actually find it incredibly hard to believe that Australian Defence Force personnel would force asylum seekers to hang onto hot engine pipes while being towed back.
But that view has absolutely nothing to do with the question of whether or not I would trust the Australian Government when it asks who do you believe? I certainly wouldn't trust the Australian Government on this issue. It spins porkies. My view is simply based on my judgement of Defence personnel.
The Government is fighting back as best it can, This report on ABC, Government claims five-year record in stopping asylum seekers from reaching Australia, is an example. However, I don't think that it matters beyond a hope that it will be true because of the need to avoid complicating things further, including the risk of inadvertent military clashes. Who would have thought that a purely domestic issue, if a key campaign pledge, would be mishandled to such a degree that it becomes a major foreign policy problem?
Mr Abbott may still win this one in purely domestic political terms if the boats stay stopped. However, that success would come at a price of a damaged relationship, a wounded and distracted Government. Mr Abbott has spent political capital that he needed to bring about other changes.