The Guardian and the ABC have released information from Edward Snowden alleging that the Australian Defence Signals Directorate (DSD, now the Australian Signals Directorate) targeted the mobile phones of a number of senior Indonesian officials — including President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono — in 2009.
Screen shot from the ABC website, reportedly showing a DSD PowerPoint presentation which indicates the intelligence gathering targets and their handsets.
This will no doubt cause a diplomatic storm, and already Teuku Faizasyah, a senior spokesperson for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, has told the ABC that the 'Australian Government urgently needs to clarify this news, to avoid further damage.' A tweet from Australian journalist Ben Packham notes that 'turning the boats around just got a lot harder.'
It sure did, and that may not be the full extent of it. If the impact of the last lot of revelations is any guide — and Fairfax's article of 31 October had fewer specific facts than this one and was a lot less personal for Indonesia's leaders — then we should expect weeks, if not months, of cold-shoulder treatment.
Once again, this ought to prompt questions about the costs and benefits of intelligence collection. Is the information Australia gathers important enough to risk such diplomatic damage?
Of course, we shouldn't overstate that damage. The fundamentals of the Australia-Indonesia relationship will eventually re-assert themselves. It is simply not in the interests of either country to create a long-term breach.
But having said that, it is easier to weather diplomatic storms like this one if there is 'ballast' in the relationship. Where both sides see an obvious down-side to a prolonged breach, they will act to avoid or minimise it. Yet Australia's two-way trade with Indonesia is currently less than that with New Zealand, and although the political relationship is routinely described by experts as being close, they also point out that people-to-people ties are extremely thin. As for the asylum seeker issue, it seems Australia needs Indonesia more than the other way around.
In fact, given Indonesia's size and sustained economic growth, that might be the motif for the overall relationship in years to come: Australia as the suitor to an ever larger and more influential regional power. That's a world in which the risks of a diplomatic breach fall much more heavily on Canberra than they do on Jakarta.