Australia 'respects Indonesia's sovereignty'

Australia 'respects Indonesia's sovereignty'
Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott (front L) talks to Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

INDONESIA - Amid rising tension over his tough approach to asylum seekers, visiting Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Monday stressed that his policy of turning back boats with illegal immigrants was not aimed at infringing Indonesia's sovereignty.

"I do want to stress that privately, as well as publicly, Australia's total respect for Indonesia's sovereignty and total respect for Indonesia's territorial integrity," said Mr Abbott, on his first trip abroad since taking office.

His trip comes just days after 39 asylum seekers drowned when their boat sank off Java.

He added that Australia "takes a very dim view... of anyone seeking to use our country as a platform for grandstanding against Indonesia".

In recent weeks, both Mr Abbott's political opponents and Indonesian lawmakers have been attacking his controversial "turn back the boats" policy, an election promise that helped propel him to power.

His proposals include rewarding Indonesian fishermen who spy on people-smuggling activities for the Australians, buying up the boats that carry asylum seekers and turning boats back into international waters.

His two-day visit is widely seen as a test of his diplomatic ability to soothe tensions that have escalated as politicians on both sides traded barbs over how to handle the rising number of asylum seekers landing on Australian shores since Australia relaxed its policies years ago.

Indonesia, with its vast, porous borders and weak naval and border authorities, has become a transit point for asylum seekers from the Middle East and elsewhere to hop on a boat to Australia.

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