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Indonesia sour over fresh spy claims

Indonesia's foreign minister dismisses Abbott's "mind-boggling" statement that Australia collects intelligence to "protect" citizens, saying "neighbours should be looking out for one another".

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The latest spying revelations and Tony Abbott's response have once again irritated Indonesia, with Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa taking a barely veiled swipe at the Australian Prime Minister on Monday.

Pointedly, Dr Natalegawa made his comments during a joint press conference with US Secretary of State John Kerry, who is touring the region.

John Kerry and Marty Natalegawa

"Those are well understood ... but ... I find it a bit mind boggling, a little bit difficult, how I can connect or reconcile discussions about shrimps and how they impact on Australian security": Dr Natalegawa makes his feeling felt at a meeting with US Secretary of State, John Kerry. Photo: AP

Apologising to Mr Kerry for doing so, and acknowledging it was not directly related to the subjects at hand, Dr Natalegawa raised new revelations that, in early 2013, the Australian Signals Directorate had spied on trade talks between the United States and Indonesia.

The talks were over a dispute involving Indonesian exports of prawns and clove cigarettes to the United States.

Dr Natalegawa said he had ''come across a statement'' by the Australian government on the matter ''and the reference that Australia collects intelligence to save Australian lives, to save the lives of other people and to promote Australian values''.

Tony Abbott

Under fire: Tony Abbott. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

''Those are well understood . . . but . . . I find it a bit mind boggling, a little bit difficult, how I can connect or reconcile discussions about shrimps and how they impact on Australian security,'' Dr Natalegawa said.

His comment was a clear reference to Prime Minister Tony Abbott's statement on ABC Radio a few hours earlier, when he said: ''We don't collect intelligence for commercial purposes – we collect intelligence to save Australian lives, to save the lives of other people, to promote Australian values, to promote the universal values of humanity and to help our friends and neighbours, including Indonesia.''

Dr Natalegawa said the talks, which had been the subject of spying, had involved ''a very technical, bilateral, US-Indonesia issue''.

''To suggest as if the future of shrimp exports by Indonesia to the United States has an impact on Australian security is a little bit much and begs some kind of serious question about what it's all about.''

He added, as Mr Kerry looked on, that neighbours such as Australia and Indonesia should ''be looking out for each other, not turning against one an other; we should be listening to each other, not listening in''.

Mr Kerry, who has spent two days in Indonesia as part of a tour of Asia, said he understood ''completely'' and respected Dr Natalegawa's comments, adding the spying revelations of Edward Snowden and their effect on international relations were ''a challenge for all of us''.

''We take this issue very seriously, which is why President Obama laid out a series of concrete and substantial reforms,'' Mr Kerry said.

''The United States doesn't collect intelligence for the competitive advantage of US companies, or US commercial sectors.''

New reforms enacted since the Snowden revelations should ensure ''transparency and accountability''.

Mr Abbott took a different tone, insisting that intelligence gathering was all about security and fighting terrorism.

Asked about spying on trade talks, Mr Abbott replied: ''What I don't do is talk publicly about allegations of this nature and we don't comment on security matters – on intelligence matters.''

Intelligence had been ''instrumental in the prevention of numerous terrorist attacks, including terrorist attacks in Indonesia,'' the Prime Minister said.

The United States has at least 32 staff inside its Canberra embassy dedicated to sharing electronic eavesdropping on Australia's neighbourhood.

The existence of the Special US Liaison Office Canberra, or SUSLOC, within the embassy was not widely known until the weekend disclosure of leaked documents by former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, which revealed the Australian spying on the trade talks.

A US spokeswoman said the embassy did not discuss its personnel numbers. But a 2010 audit by the US State Department lists the special liaison office with 32 staff, making it the third-largest of the military sections within the embassy. The audit, marked ''sensitive but unclassified'', also shows other US intelligence ties to Australia.

On the broader issue of the bilateral relationship with Indonesia, Mr Abbott said talks towards a new code of conduct and to normalise relations were ''progressing slowly''.

He would like them to progress more quickly, he said.

The comment comes as Reuters reported a new Indonesian cabinet paper, prepared in January, that suggested it would be six months or more before the relationship was back on an even footing.

Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek said on Tuesday that it was clear there were serious issues in relations with Indonesia that need to be addressed.

''It's important to get that relationship back on track and it would be ideal if this was prioritised by the Australian government,'' she told ABC radio.

with Daniel Flitton

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