In case you missed it, and I wouldn’t blame you if you did, the diplomatic row that is most likely to turn into a shooting war may be the ongoing dispute between Australia and Indonesia. The tension between the two nations, who had been on increasingly good terms with each other following a bottoming out during the East Timor secession crisis 15 years ago, has two roots. One of them actually involves everybody’s favorite hero and/or traitor, Edward Snowden; one of the secret documents he’s revealed shows that Australia has been trying to eavesdrop on Indonesia’s president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife, and several other top officials in the Indonesian government. Now, much like the “revelations” that America has been spying on Germany, Brazil, etc., this is the kind of thing that surprises nobody but demands a public declaration of shock and outrage on the part of the country being spied upon. Of course Australia was spying on Indonesia. Indonesia knew that, and I’d bet all the money I have in my wallet right now (SPOILER ALERT: I have one Qatari riyal in my wallet right now, which is worth a hair over a quarter) that Indonesia has been spying on Australia too. But there’s a dance that has to be danced when one nation is “revealed” to be spying on another, and so they’re doing that.
What’s really causing the escalating problems is a dispute over asylum seekers who keep hopping boats from Indonesia to Australia. Indonesia is something of a hub for asylum seekers across the Islamic world, from folks fleeing the strife in Iraq and Afghanistan to minorities escaping persecution in places like Iran, or Pakistan, or, well, Iraq and Afghanistan. A few thousand arrive in Indonesia every year, attracted I guess by the fact that Indonesia is a majority Muslim country, relatively easy to get to, led by a government that at least claims to value democracy and universal social justice, and that isn’t currently imploding. Usually they’re looking to establish their refugee status with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, before moving on to more permanent arrangements either inside Indonesia or in another country. Because of its proximity to Indonesia, its size, and its reasonably high standard of living, “another country” often means Australia. You may be able to see where this is going.
As conditions either actively deteriorate or passively stagnate in conflict zones around the Middle East, more and more would-be refugees (actually, many aren’t “would-be” at all, and are recognized as refugees by the UNHCR) are winding up in Indonesia waiting for the government to process and resettle them. The problem is, the Indonesian government isn’t all that interested in expending the effort and money it would take to process all of these folks in a timely fashion, so many of them are languishing in what are, more or less, detention camps in Indonesia. As their frustration builds, these asylum seekers are increasingly inclined to take matters into their own hands, either by building their own makeshift boats or paying smugglers to take them to, you guessed it, Australia. The thing is, Australia has been getting fed up with this sort of thing, so fed up that in September the Australian government launched the cleverly named “Operation Sovereign Borders” (OSB), a multi-pronged effort to encourage asylum seekers not to hop on a boat and to intercept and return the boats that do get launched. They’re claiming huge reductions in the number of asylum seekers arriving in Australia, though that seems inherently to be a difficult thing to accurately assess.
Indonesia has been none too happy about Australia’s efforts to stem the flow of asylum seekers, first and foremost because, hey, Indonesia didn’t want them in the first place (see, most everybody has sympathy for refugees, but it often seems much harder to find sympathy for a refugee, let alone those refugees, right there). But also, and this is why things may escalate to shooting, it seems the Australian navy has assumed the right to saunter into waters claimed by Indonesia in its efforts to interdict smugglers. Australia has insisted that the incursions were “inadvertent” and has apologized, but, much like pretending to be shocked when it’s revealed that another country is spying on you, this is the kind of pro forma thing you say when you’re caught repeatedly violating the territorial integrity of another country. Indonesia has “suspended cooperation” with Australia over the people smuggling issue as well as a host of other security issues (the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Indonesia, Jemaah Islamiyah, has targeted Australian citizens and interests in Indonesia in the past, so Australia has good reason to cooperate with Indonesian authorities), mostly because of the territorial violations, but the spying “revelations” have given them a convenient and sympathetic justification as well.
Most recently, the Indonesian government has announced that it would step up naval activity near its maritime border with Australia, ostensibly to do more to stop the flow of asylum seekers, but they’re also very clearly noting that the Indonesian navy has a right to defend its waters from outside incursion. They’ve also dedicated a number of air assets to monitor the Australian border, and are apparently beefing up their air and sea capabilities considerably. Indonesian air force officials are telling the Jakarta Post that Australia is “reachable,” so they’ve got that going for them, which is nice.
Meanwhile, the domestic commentary in Australia ranges from “Scott Morrison (the immigration minister behind the controversial Operation Sovereign Borders) is a bigot who must go to preserve relations with Indonesia” to “the Indonesian government are all a bunch of hypocrites,” and, really can’t they both be right? The Australian government is playing to racial and ethnic fears that some massive tide of Great Unwashed could suddenly flood Australian society without its OSB in place, when at most we’re talking about a few thousand people and almost all of them have been officially designated as refugees and have a right to move freely and earn a living somewhere. But the Indonesian government has sat on so many of these cases for so long that they’ve driven the asylum seekers to desperate measures, and in the meantime they had no interest in policing their maritime borders when the only issue was smuggling; it took the Australian incursions to get Indonesia to suddenly amp up their naval presence. Forget Australian social fears or Indonesia’s concern over preserving its borders, and really forget the phony anger about one country spying on the other; the only real victims here are the refugees themselves, who are being denied their basic rights, and that should surprise nobody but ought to outrage somebody.