So Australian Ambassador Greg Moriarty is being 'invited' to pay a visit to Indonesia's foreign ministry to offer an explanation for this Sydney Morning Herald report claiming that 'Australian embassies are being secretly used to intercept phone calls and data across Asia as part of a US-led global spying network'. Jakarta and Denpasar were two diplomatic posts named in the story as listening posts. 

Let's get the pro-forma world weariness out of the way first: every country that can afford to engages in electronic eavesdropping, every country assumes it is being targeted and most countries take elaborate measures to ensure their own communications are protected. It's the way of the anarchical, self-help international system, and always will be.

That's why incidents like this are awkward, embarrassing and damaging for the country being spied upon, as well as those doing the spying. Imagine if Angela Merkel, once she had been made aware that the US was bugging her mobile phone, had been given a choice: she could either deal with the issue privately through the US Embassy (or directly to the White House), or she could hold a press conference announcing her disgust and demanding an investigation.

For Merkel, it would have been an easy decision. If you deal with it privately, you won't be publicly confronted with your own hypocrisy (Germany spies too). Plus, you have instant leverage. Instead of a media-driven diplomatic crisis which threatens to derail free trade negotiations, Germany would have had a handy card to play in order to win some concessions in the talks.

In the actual circumstances, of course, Merkel had no choice. The phone-bugging story was so big that it demanded a firm public response.

Which brings us back to Indonesia and that story in the Fairfax press. It was just one story and could easily have been brushed off or dealt with through a phone call or a pro forma written protest. Because the story was smaller, the Indonesian Government had the choice which Angela Merkel's government did not have: go public or deal with it quietly?

It's not obvious to me why Indonesia chose the public course. Of course, a dressing down such as the one Indonesia is handing Australia today can have its place. Did Jakarta want to impress a domestic audience with its firm stance? Let me know your views: blogeditor@lowyinstitute.org.

Photo by Flickr user Alisdair Thompson.