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Spies like us: Australia, America and the Asia-Pacific

Australia has now been caught up in the web of Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks about spying. How might it affect relations with countries in our region? EPA/Ole Spata

Who would have thought it? Governments, it seems, have been spying on each other. As revelations go, this may be slightly less surprising than the news that the British tabloids are entirely without scruples in exposing the private lives of both the famous and the obscure.

What is more remarkable, perhaps, is the scale, the methodologies and the confected outrage that has accompanied the exposure of contemporary forms of intrusion.

Predictably enough, the United States is at the epicentre of the latest revelations. The sheer scale of America’s surveillance capabilities is remarkable. Troublingly, such capacities are not directed solely at potentially hostile powers. On the contrary, in the wake of September 11 and thanks to the USA PATRIOT Act, American citizens are more closely monitored than ever.

The National Security Agency (NSA) has the ability to access millions of supposedly private emails and routinely scans them for possible security threats. Significantly, this has been done with the compliance of major domestic telecommunications companies such as AT&T.

The revelation that the likes of Google and Twitter have also been drawn into this expanding web of surveillance raises questions about their independence and the safety of the information they hold. It also suggests the NSA has an unlimited appetite for information with few checks on its expanding ambit.

Whatever the merits of an enhanced domestic surveillance program in combating possible security threats, the nexus between the state and the private sector in the US is not without its ironies.

According to former CIA director Michael Hayden it “goes without saying” that telecommunications giants Huawei spies for the Chinese government and that it represents a threat to Australia’s security as a consequence. The evidence to support such assertions is by definition hard to come by, but the Abbott government is plainly not prepared to take any chances.

The government has confirmed it will not be rescinding its predecessor’s ban on Huawei’s participation in key infrastructure developments. This comes despite the protestations of Huawei’s high-profile Australian directors like former foreign minister Alexander Downer and former Victorian premier John Brumby.

If the security relationship with China remains contentious, Australia’s intelligence links with the US do not, despite the growing unhappiness among other key American allies in Europe. In part, this may be because no-one has so far suggested that the US monitors the communications of Australian prime ministers. But it must also be because Australia’s role in America’s intelligence-gathering efforts is so long-standing, highly developed, and enjoys bipartisan political support.

The “joint defence facilities” at places such as Pine Gap are vital cogs in America’s global surveillance and defence networks. Australia is a key part of the so-called “Five Eyes” countries, which along with the US includes other “Anglosphere” countries in the UK, Canada and New Zealand. Australia’s primary role in this network is contributing intelligence on the southeast Asian region.

It was precisely this role to which Edward Snowden’s revelations have drawn such unwanted attention, and caused the Australian government such acute discomfort. As Indonesia’s urbane foreign minister Marty Natalegawa noted, it’s simply “not cricket” to spy on one’s friends. Perhaps not, which is why the revelations send such an unfortunate signal to an Indonesian government with which the Abbott government is assiduously trying to improve relations.

And yet it is difficult to believe that the Indonesians were actually surprised by the exposure of Australia’s key role in America’s intelligence-gathering infrastructure. Des Ball at the ANU - where Natalegawa received his PhD - has provided detailed analyses of this relationship for many years.

Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa has condemned Australia’s Asia-Pacific spying network as ‘just not cricket’. EPA/Bagus Indahono

It is important to recognise that Natalegawa’s remarks also had a domestic audience, and one that would expect a vigorous defence of outraged national pride. Sovereignty is something to which Australia’s southeast Asian neighbours attach great importance and they don’t welcome its violation.

The damage to Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is, however, likely to be minimal. Both countries have powerful reasons to improve bilateral ties and there is currently much goodwill on both sides. And yet, the Indonesians might be forgiven for wondering about Australia’s priorities.

Is this the behaviour of a like-minded middle power bent on carving out a distinctive, independent position that reflects a unique set of national priorities? Or is it a manifestation of enduring strategic ties and attitudes that make close relations with nations from the East Asian region problematic?

We have no way of independently judging the value or the content of the intelligence our spies generate. But we can see some of the costs such activities may incur. As Barack Obama’s homeland security and counter-terrorism adviser Lisa Monaco observed:

We want to ensure we are collecting information because we need it and not just because we can.

It is advice our policymakers might do well to ponder.

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