Furor ahead of Australian leader’s Jakarta visitBy AP News Sep 27, 2013 1:02PM UTC
CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — A furor over Australia’s contentious policy of turning asylum seeker boats back to Indonesia has erupted ahead of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s first visit as Australian leader to its important neighbor.
Indonesia has warned that the Australian navy intercepting Indonesian fishing boats crowded with foreign asylum seekers from countries included Iran, Afghanistan, Vietnam and Burma and forcing them back could breach Indonesian sovereignty.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa drove home that message in a meeting with his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop in New York this week.
Indonesia feared such “unilateral measures” would “risk the close collaboration and trust” between the countries on combating people smuggling and “therefore should be avoided,” according to notes on Monday’s meeting released by Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry.
Alexander Downer, who was Australian foreign minister for 11 years until 2007 when Abbott’s conservative Liberal Party was last in power, dismissed Natalegawa’s stance as “pious rhetoric.”
“Indonesian-flagged boats with Indonesian crews are breaking our laws bringing people into our territorial waters. This is a breach of our sovereignty,” Australia’s longest serving foreign minister told Australian Broadcasting Corp. television late Thursday.
“Instead was a lot of pious rhetoric about that Australian government threatening their sovereignty, their people, their boats, their crews are breaching our sovereignty,” he added.
Abbott on Friday would not be drawn on Downer’s comments and played down the potential impact on bilateral relations of Australia’s new border security policy.
Abbott flies to Jakarta on Sunday on his first international trip as prime minister. He meets Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on Monday in a meeting focused on trade.
Abbott’s government was sworn in last week after a crushing election victory on Sept. 7 partly on a promise to stop asylum seeker boats.
“This is a broad and deep relationship which is going to get broader and deeper over time and the last thing that anyone should want is to have Australia’s relationship with Indonesia defined by this boats issue which I am sure will be but a passing irritant,” Abbott told Melbourne Radio 3AW.
Abbott has said keeping his government’s promise to curb an influx is asylum seekers reaching Australian shores by boat in recent years is key to its re-election in three years.
The government announced this week that it will not tell the media when boats have been forced back.
Acting opposition leader Chris Bowen said Natalegawa’s publicly announcing his concerns about the policy represented a failure by Bishop as foreign minister.
“It takes a special effort to endanger such as important bilateral relationship in the first week of office before Mr. Abbott and President Yudhoyono have even met,” Bowen said.