INDONESIA’S relations with Australia have hit their lowest point since the turn of the century over reports Canberra spied on high-ranking Indonesians – including the president’s wife.
The row is threatening diplomatic, military and trade ties after president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose wife’s mobile phone was among those reportedly tapped said yesterday he was withdrawing co-operation on military and intelligence matters, including over the issue of asylum seekers.
“It’s clear that this is a logical step Indonesia must take,” Mr Yudhoyono said.
The public display of anger was triggered by reports this week quoting documents leaked by former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, that spy agencies had tried to tap Mr Yudhoyono’s mobile phone and those of his wife and senior officials in 2009.
An Australian defence department spokesman said his ministry was seeking clarification on the moves and said it was not clear what the impact would be on bilateral ties.
Australian prime minister Tony Abbott expressed regret for the embarrassment the media reports had caused Mr Yudhoyono.
“I do understand how personally hurtful these allegations have been for him and his family,” he said.
His government has declined to comment directly on the spying reports.
An Indonesian military spokesman said that the withdrawal of military co-operation would take effect from the beginning of next year.
Relations last became frosty in 1999 when Australia sent troops into East Timor after Indonesia’s military pulled out after embarking on a scorched-earth policy in the one-time Indonesian colony.
Ties with Jakarta have turned increasingly prickly since Mr Abbott took office in September, because of the spying reports and tension over how to prevent asylum seekers, most of them from South Asia, sailing from Indonesia to Australia.
Ruhut Sitompul, known to be a Yudhoyono confidant and a member of his ruling Democratic Party, said the president’s reaction was understandable.
The insider said: “[He] has spent years trying to build a relationship with Australia and so he feels it’s personal when they spy on him and his wife.
“Why is [his wife] even being tapped? She’s the first lady and yes, she has influence on the president, but to a normal extent between husband and wife. So the president is not angry specifically because of his wife. He has told all of us in the government, in the party, to be rational.”
Ani Bambang Yudhoyono, the daughter of one of Indonesia’s most famous and controversial generals, is often portrayed as having significant influence over decision making.
The president took to Twitter on Tuesday to speak of his distress over the spying reports.
“Judging by [his]… tweets and his over reaction, it seems the Aussies have hit a little too close to home,” said an Indonesian businessman with links to Yudhoyono’s inner circle.
He added: “Ani is very influential and holds a lot of decision-making power. So spying on her ruffles feathers in the highest places and he is bound to react very angrily. Of course, there is a bit of posturing going on, he needs to look good and capitalise on any opportunity to make his party look good as we head to elections.”