Prime Minister Tony Abbott is publicly downplaying the issue. But surely he knows just what a huge diplomatic disaster this is. Indonesia is Australia's closest neighbour, and two-way trade between the two countries last year amounted to A$15 billion ($16.9 billion). In Parliament, Abbott some days back described Indonesia as an "emerging democratic superpower in Asia" (perhaps distinguishing Indonesia from the not-so-democratic China). Abbott also described SBY as "one of the best friends that we have anywhere in the world".
Abbott's stated respect for Indonesia has not, however, been reflected in Australia's recent dealings involving asylum seekers which have largely been driven by partisan domestic political considerations. The Abbott asylum policy, reflected in the simplistic formula of "stop the boats", could only ever work with the co-operation of Indonesia.
The policy is being treated as a military operation, as if 50 dishevelled asylum seekers on a boat somehow represent a security threat requiring a 3-star general. The secretive implementation of this policy, with the Immigration Minister and the general providing vague weekly briefings to journalists, reached such heights of stupidity that Australian journalists found more information about the policy from their Indonesian colleagues at the Jakarta Post than from their own Government.
Time and again, Indonesian officials expressed frustration with Australia's unilateral approach to the issue of asylum seekers which affected both countries. Abbott's policy included the Australian Navy turning back tiny fishing boats carrying asylum seekers "when it is safe to do so". The fishing boats would then return to Indonesia. Abbott insisted that Indonesia would co-operate, ignoring Indonesian concerns about both the human rights implications and of the immense social pressures this would have on the more crowded and poorer nation.
It was as if Indonesia was at Australia's beck and call. Tony Abbott's emphasis on the "Anglosphere" as the focus of Australia's foreign policy confirmed commonly held Asian suspicions that Australia saw itself as a Western colonial outpost in the Asia-Pacific region, as the deputy sheriff of the United States.
Australian politicians of all political stripes are so focused on the West that they forget their own geographical location. Understanding of Asian cultures in Australia is poor. Indonesian language instruction, once a primary feature in Australian secondary schools, has all but disappeared. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade does an excellent job running cultural and other exchange programmes, but these are to build person to person contacts, not replace the bilateral policy process.
Some in Jakarta are quite happy to attack Tony Abbott's domestic standing by undermining his efforts to stop the boats. At the time of writing, a member of the House of Representatives' Commission on defence, foreign affairs and information had told the Jakarta Post:
We are in a better position than Australia. This issue [boat people] could be utilised as a bargaining chip in demanding an apology from Prime Minister Abbott.
Abbott's response has been to virtually scoff at any suggestion of an apology.
Every government gathers information and every government knows every other government gathers information.
True, but not everyone gets caught. When it comes to such spying methods, Indonesia is hardly in a position to cast the first stone. As News Limited points out:
When he retired in 2004 Indonesian spymaster General Abdullah Mahmud Hendropriyono revealed his agency had not only tapped Australian civil and military communications and politicians' phone calls during the 1999 East Timor crisis, but had also unsuccessfully attempted to recruit Australian officials as double agents.
The official Australian response at the time was muted.
All this fracas coincides with a visit to Jakarta by Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands. Indonesians don't exactly have fond memories of Dutch colonisation which began in the 16th century. Following Japanese occupation during World War II, Dutch forces attempted to re-establish colonial rule. Most Western countries supported Dutch claims. Australia's Labor government under Prime Minister Ben Chifley openly supported the nascent Indonesian nationalist movement.
Why did Australian leaders at the time support Indonesia, even going to the extent of criticising their closest ally, the US, for supplying material and moral aid to Dutch forces in the archipelago? Simply because Australia realised that its security and its national interest lay in an independent, strong and proud neighbour. Indonesian independence reinforced Australian independence.
There are still some in Canberra who see Indonesia as a potential threat. Which is all the more reason to keep Indonesia on side. You keep your friends close and your potential enemies closer.
• Irfan Yusuf is a lawyer and an award-winning Australian author. This article was first published in the NZ Herald on Friday 22 November 2013.