SYDNEY: Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Friday described asylum-seekers arriving by boat from Indonesia as a “passing irritant” to the relationship, days before visiting the archipelago in his first foreign trip as leader.
Abbott, who took power this month after winning national polls, has ordered a military-led border protection plan to deter boatpeople which will see vessels turned back when it is safe to do so.
The Australian leader denied the plan would jeopardize relations with northern neighbor Indonesia, which has been cool towards the scheme it has suggested infringes its sovereignty.
“The last thing I would ever want to do is anything that doesn’t show the fullest possible respect for Indonesia’s sovereignty,” Abbott told Fairfax Radio.
“This is a broad and deep relationship which is going to get broader and deeper over time.
“The last thing 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.”
At a meeting in New York on Monday with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa warned his country would not accept violations of its borders.
Bishop described the meeting as “very productive” and “cordial” but the Indonesian foreign ministry later issued a statement giving details of the talks on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly about Canberra’s plans to stop people-smuggling boats.
“Australia conveyed that it is hoping for the support of the Indonesian government to prevent Indonesian-flagged fishing boats being used for such purposes,” the statement said.
“Australia said it was ready to cooperate fully with the Indonesian government to handle the matter ‘behind the scenes’ and ‘quietly’ to avoid excessive publicity that could have a negative impact on the effort.”
The unusual statement said Natalegawa told Bishop that Indonesia was concerned “that the unilateral steps Australia will take could put at risk the strong cooperation and trust” about asylum-seekers which have built up between the nations and should be avoided.
Former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer responded to the statement by calling on Indonesia, which many asylum-seekers use as a staging post as they journey to Australia by sea, to stop the “pious rhetoric.”
“Let me make this point for Mr. Natalegawa’s benefit: Indonesian-flagged boats with Indonesian crews are breaking our laws bringing people into our territorial waters,” Downer told national broadcaster ABC.
“This is a breach of our sovereignty and the Indonesians need to understand that, instead of a lot of pious rhetoric about the Australian government breaching their sovereignty.”
Abbott, who visits Indonesia next week in the first foreign trip of his prime ministership, said he did not see the issue as jeopardizing ties with Jakarta.
“If Australia did something foolish obviously it could be [in jeopardy], but the incoming government will not do foolish things,” Abbott said.
“We will do strong and sensible things which build on the good relationship that we already have with Indonesia.”