In his first overseas trip, recently elected Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott met Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Jakarta on Monday.
Though both sides struck a friendly note, with a joint communiqué stating the leaders had “expressed satisfaction” with their “comprehensive partnership”, tensions between the nations over Mr. Abbot’s hardline policy towards asylum seekers has been on the rise.
The issue of illegal migrants is a political hot potato in Australia. With the numbers of so-called “boat people” arriving in the country having sharply increased this year, immigration was a major plank in Australia’s September 7 elections.
Since many asylum seeker boats bound for Australia leave from Indonesia, it is Mr. Abbott’s stated intention to turn these boats around and send them back. He has said that the Australian government will buy up Indonesian fishing boats to prevent them from being used for people smuggling and also pay local informants in Indonesia for information on these smugglers.
Members of the Indonesian government, including Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, have reacted sharply to these announcements, calling them a breach of sovereignty.
Speaking to reporters after Monday’s meeting, Mr. Abbot said that the two leaders were determined to end the “scourge”, which had “so often become a humanitarian disaster in the seas between our two countries”. However, he stressed that Australia had “total respect for Indonesia’s sovereignty” and territorial integrity. Mr. Yudhoyono also agreed that the two countries had to work closely together to combat the problem. “The solution is cooperation,” he said. But, no specific action plan was spelled out, nor was there any direct reference to Mr. Abbot’s “towing-back-the-boats” plan.
Monday’s meeting came just three days after a boat packed with asylum seekers sank in Indonesian waters, killing at least 39 and leaving dozens more missing.
Mr. Abbot has described Australia’s relationship with Indonesia as the country’s most important bilateral relationship. His visit also had a strong focus on trade and economic issues. Two-way trade is valued at $14.6 billion and a large business delegation accompanied the Prime Minister. Indonesia is tipped to become the world’s fourth largest economy by 2050.