JAKARTA – Indonesia Monday described as “mind-boggling” a report that Australian spies targeted Jakarta during a trade dispute with Washington, as a new espionage row erupted during a visit by US Secretary of State John Kerry.
Ties between Canberra and Jakarta have sunk to their lowest point for years in recent months over previous allegations that Australian spies tried to tap the phones of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his inner circle.
Jakarta recalled its ambassador from Canberra and suspended cooperation in several areas, including on the sensitive area of people-smuggling, following the allegations.
As Kerry visited Jakarta on Monday as part of an Asian tour, tensions flared over new espionage allegations in a weekend New York Times report, which said Australian spies targeted Indonesian officials during a trade dispute with the United States.
The report, based on a document from US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden, said that the spies listened in on conversations about trade between the Indonesians and their US lawyers and offered information they gleaned to the US National Security Agency.
“I find that a bit mind-boggling and a bit difficult how I can connect or reconcile discussion about shrimps and how it impacts on Australia’s security,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Natalegawa told reporters at a press conference alongside Kerry.
Indonesia has been embroiled in trade disputes with the US over its exports of shrimp and clove cigarettes in recent years.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has refused to confirm the report, but defended the country’s intelligence-gathering Monday as “to save Australian lives, to save the lives of other people”.
However Natalegawa said that it was “a little bit too much and begs some kind of serious question about what this is all about”.
“I think there is a very important and fine distinction between to listen to one another and to listen in,” he added.
Responding to a question about the report, Kerry said: “I completely understand, as we do in the United States, how there are concerns… regarding this issue, which is challenging for all of us.”
“I’d just make it clear to everybody.. the United States does not collect intelligence to afford a competitive advantage to US companies or US commercial sectors,” he added.
Leaders from US allies have been angered by allegations that the NSA monitored their telephone calls, while outrage in the United States has centered on the news that the NSA swept up “metadata” from private calls by ordinary Americans.
Kerry said planned reforms to the way the NSA operated “should give greater confidence to people everywhere about privacy and civil liberties and that they are being protected”.
“We believe we have a transparency and accountability that should address everybody’s concerns,” he said, adding privacy had to be balanced with the protection of citizens against security threats.
As well as the row over spying, Canberra and Jakarta have been at loggerheads over Australia’s military-led operation aimed at stemming the flow of asylum-seekers, most of whom make the journey from Indonesia in rickety wooden boats.
Natalegawa reportedly lashed out at Canberra in recent days for a policy he described as “against the values of humanity”.
Abbott said a code of conduct between the neighbors, which Jakarta has demanded following the first spying row, was “progressing slowly”.
“I’d like it to progress much faster. Australia has a strong relationship with Indonesia. It’s a very, very important relationship,” he said.