A diplomatic row between Australia and Indonesia has deepened, with both sides refusing to back down after allegations emerged that Australian intelligence services had spied on the Indonesian president.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono accused newly elected Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott of dismissing his country’s concerns in a statement on Twitter on Tuesday.
Abbott, in office since September, rejected calls for an explanation, describing surveillance by Australian governments as “reasonable intelligence operations”.
The latest flare-up followed Australian media reports, quoting documents leaked by former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, that Australian spy agencies had tried to tap the mobile phones of Yudhoyono, his wife and senior officials in August 2009.
Reports last month said Australia’s Jakarta embassy had been part of a US-led surveillance network to spy on Indonesia.
“I … regret the statement of Australian Prime Minister that belittled this tapping matter on Indonesia, without any remorse,” Yudhoyono wrote on Twitter. He did not say to which statement by Abbott he was referring.
“These US & Australian actions have certainly damaged the strategic partnerships with Indonesia, as fellow democracies,” he added.
Indonesia, he wrote, “demands an official response, one that can be understood by the public”.
Later on Tuesday, Yudhoyono’s spokesperson said that the Indonesian government was hoping for “a positive development to save relations between the two countries”.
The statements came a day after the recall of Indonesia’s ambassador to Australia.
Asylum seeker issue
Abbott, however, was unrepentant on the spying issue, although he did say that he regretted “any embarassment recent media reports have caused [the Indonesian president]”.
“I don’t believe that Australia should be expected to apologise for reasonable intelligence gathering operations, just as I don’t expect other countries or other governments to apologise for their reasonable intelligence gathering operations,” he told parliament.
Earlier he told reporters that the two countries had a very good relationship, but added: “Obviously today may not be the best day in that relationship. He pledged never to undertake any action that would damage ties with Indonesia, “which is, all in all – our most important relationship”.
Australia and Indonesia have a long and turbulent history in their diplomatic relations, including several recalls of ambassadors.
The latest flare-up has centred on disagreements over the handling of the politically charged issue of asylum seekers trying to reach Australia via Indonesia.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa recalled the ambassador to Canberra, calling the reported eavesdropping “nothing less than an unfriendly act … [that] has a serious impact on bilateral relations”.
Australia’s former Foreign Minister Bob Carr, now in opposition, told Australian Broadcasting Corp radio: “I think this is nothing short of catastrophic.”