JAKARTA, Feb 17 (Reuters) - Indonesia described reports that Australia had listened in on government trade discussions with lawyers as mind-boggling, saying that to contend they had anything to do with security was going too far.
Often prickly relations have hit a new low since Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott took office last September, with Jakarta furious at reports that Australia wiretapped the phones of top Indonesian officials including the president and his wife.
“To suggest that the future of shrimp exports by Indonesia to the United States has an impact on Australian security is a little too much and begs some serious questions as to what it’s all about,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said at a joint press conference with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Jakarta.
“In our view, neighbours like Indonesia and Australia should be looking out for each other, not turning against each other.”
Natalegawa’s comments follow media revelations at the weekend that Australia notified the U.S. National Security Agency that it was conducting surveillance of talks between the Indonesian government and an unnamed U.S. law firm on bilateral trade.
A top secret document obtained by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden shows the firm was monitored while representing the Indonesian government in trade disputes with the United States, according to The New York Times.
Abbott said the government did not comment on operational matters but that intelligence is not used for commercial purposes, according to media.
Natalegawa said he was unsatisfied with the Australian response.
“I have come across statements that Australia collects intelligence to save Australian lives, lives of other people, to promote Australian values,” Natalegawa added. “But I must say I find it a bit mind-boggling, a bit difficult how I can reconcile discussions about shrimps and the impact on Australian security.”
Relations between the two neighbours have also been strained over asylum-seekers who attempt to reach Australia via Indonesia. Australia has started implementing a “turn back the boats” policy, which Natalegawa has criticized as “unhelpful”.
Indonesia suspended police and intelligence cooperation on asylum-seekers with its neighbour late last year following the earlier reports of wire-tapping of top officials.
Kerry, when asked about the U.S. response to the surveillance issue, cited a series of reforms to U.S. intelligence-gathering operations.
“We take this issue very seriously which is why President Obama laid out a series of concrete and substantial reforms. The president said in his speech on this subject, the United States does not collect intelligence to afford a competitive advantage for U.S. companies or U.S. commercial sectors.”
Kerry was speaking in the Indonesian capital during a trip to Asia and the Middle East, including a stop in Beijing last week. (Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Nick Macfie)