It is with bemusement that I follow the latest political ping pong between Indonesia and Australia. It started with the allegation that Australia spied on the Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2009. The allegation was pretty much confirmed in the to- and fro- of messages and reports and by observing the inadept handling by the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop.
Cue the dramatic messages from Indonesia and the withdrawal of the Ambassador from Canberra. Cue the nationalistic and bombastic Facebook posts and updates from the Indonesians – as well comments based on small-town mentality from the Australian side.
I mentioned to my colleague at work that we should probably expect some kind of demonstration in Jakarta, complete with effigy and flag burning. It’s just the same old predictable story line and plot – and forgive me for being cynical, it’s just part of my aging process.
All of this could have been handled better much earlier on by a diplomat who is well-versed with Asian cultures and who is much more skillful than the current Minister for foreign affairs. Julie Bishop is completely trounced over and outclassed by her Indonesian counterpart on this, Marty Natalegawa.
Before I go all analytical, let’s get back from the beginning.
During this year’s General Election in Australia, the Liberal Party ran a well-concerted campaign to depose the Labor government – part of the main message is the testosterone-filled mantra that the Liberal party would be tougher on asylum seekers and that they would turn back the boat over to Indonesia. Negative reactions from Indonesia were dismissed as being voiced by lower-rank diplomats and that the relationship is all hunky dory. What do you expect – if you’re at the Indonesian side, would you be expected to smile and welcome the gung-ho messages with open arms? In the age of exposed communication, nobody should assume that the election campaigns that are intended for domestic consumption only, will not be exposed internationally.
When the Liberal Party was elected, they unsurprisingly encountered oppositions from Indonesia – the relationship is not that rosy after all. This is also not helped at all by the clumsy communication from Tony Abbott, Julie Bishop, and Scott Morrison, the Minister for Immigration. So, the revelation that Australia spied on the Indonesian president in 2009 couldn’t have come at a worse time.
The element that makes it worse – again, is the clumsy diplomatic skills shown by Bishop and Abbott. They were dismissive and chose the rational explanation that surely Indonesia should expect being spied on, and that it is just how things are in the global political arena. Abbott tries to sugarcoat it by saying that the spying is for the betterment of Australia’s friends. Yes, so the fact that my friend has just rummaged through my jocks without my permission – is so that they can help me?
Of course countries spy on each other – after all, what do you think the key activities of ASIS (Australia Secret Intelligence Service), CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) and Badan Intelijen Negara (BIN) – comparing recipes for chicken curry and scones? The important thing is to do it as sophisticated and as invisibly as possible – and if you are discovered, you have to be darned sure that you have a good remedial communication strategy.
What does Australia expect the Indonesian President would do? Smile and do nothing? Think about the millions of people who expect the President to release nationalistic and patriotic statements. The failure to do so would make him lose face domestically. He would risk being perceived as weak and gutless – a perception that he is fighting already anyway. Abbott and Bishop also fail to understand the importance of face in Asian cultures – that you should not ever let your guest, your boss, your parents (basically the people that you care about, or work for, or do business with) ever to lose face. By being dismissive and sticking to rational explanations when the spying allegation was brought to the open, Australia reopens the old image of the West being arrogant. An image that was already re-enforced through the poor handling of the asylum seeker issue.
A lesson from the past: when Michel Camdessus (the then President of the International Monetary Fund) stood next to President Suharto, Indonesia’s second president in 1998 – he made a mistake of unconsciously adopting a dismissive gesture. By folding his arms and looking down on President Suharto as he signed the agreement to accept the monetary assistance from IMF, Camdessus was seen as a representative of the evil, arrogant West who dared to belittle the President and caused him to lose face in front of millions of people. This incident was one of the catalysts that created a turbulent period in Indonesian history in the late 1990’s.
You may think that ‘the face’ is such a trivial and stupid thing – but if you work in Asia or do business with Asian partners, and rely on rational and logical arguments all the time, you will find yourself alone, outclassed and being treated as an outcast.