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.

"If Australia really wants to address the problem, then it should help Indonesia develop its capacity to assess asylum claims and process refugees," said Ms Elaine Pearson, the Australian director of Human Rights Watch.

Just days before, a boat carrying about 80 mostly Lebanese sank off Java. Thirty-nine drowned, and dozens are missing.

"Many (asylum seekers) from the Middle East and others come to Indonesia, placing a burden on Indonesia socially and economically. Even when a portion of them leave for Australia, they can still burden Indonesia," said Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

In the first eight months of this year, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Jakarta recorded 8,872 asylum seekers and says their numbers are rising. They come mostly from countries racked by sectarian conflict such as Afghanistan, Iran, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

After a nearly two-hour meeting on Monday, both leaders stressed that their relationship is much wider than the asylum issue, which has threatened to overshadow trade and business talks.

Australia is the ninth-largest investor in Indonesia. Australian companies invested US$700 million (S$880 million) in Indonesia last year, up from US$100 million in 2011.

Indonesia is now targeting US$15 billion worth of trade with Australia, up from the present US$10 billion, mostly in agriculture, especially imports of Australian beef.

Australia, the world's third-biggest beef exporter, relies heavily on Indonesian demand.

Beef farmers were hit hard after former prime minister Julia Gillard banned live exports of cattle in 2011 to Indonesia after video footage emerged of Australian cattle being mistreated in Indonesia abattoirs. The ban was lifted a month later.

Taking pains to repair this episode, Mr Abbott said: "We have had some mistakes in the past. Let us make a new start, particularly in the area of agriculture and food security."

He also announced the opening of a new Australian-Indonesian studies centre in Monash University, as part of fostering deeper understanding between their people.

"Yes, we have much to teach our region, but our region, particularly Indonesia, has so much to teach us," said Mr Abbott.

He will be meeting business leaders today, before returning to Australia.

zubaidah@sph.com.sg


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