Jakarta fires shot across Tony Abbott's bow on asylum boats

Peter Alford
The Australian
September 27, 2013 8:34AM

INDONESIA has warned the Coalition that "unilateral" measures could risk bilateral co-operation on asylum-seekers, raising diplomatic tension over Tony Abbott's border-protection policies on the eve of his visit to Jakarta.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa yesterday took the unusual step of releasing an 1100-word account of his conversation with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in New York on Monday.

Dr Natalegawa said he had told Ms Bishop "unilateral measures taken by Australia would potentially risk the close co-operation and trust between the two countries that has been established through (the) Bali Process, and thus should be avoided".

His public intervention - dismissed by former foreign minister Alexander Downer last night as "pious rhetoric" - is the third in the three weeks since the federal election that he has made on the Coalition policy of turning back asylum-seeker boats and the proposed "Indonesian community engagement program".

It ensures the issue will be the focus of the Prime Minister's visit to Jakarta from Monday to consolidate what he has described as Australia's most important relationship.

Ms Bishop told Dr Natalegawa on Monday Australia did not want asylum-seekers dominating the visit because the main agenda for Mr Abbott's trip was trade and investment. She refused yesterday to respond to Dr Natalegawa's account of their conversation.

"We are not going to engage in megaphone diplomacy," a spokeswoman said.

Dr Natalegawa also disclosed that Ms Bishop had offered to co-operate with Indonesia "to handle this issue 'behind the scenes' as well as 'quietly' to avoid over-publicity having a negative impact on those measures".

The new government has imposed a day-by-day information blackout in Australia on asylum-seeker arrivals and rescues but

The Australian has learned of at least two incidents yesterday - the most serious a disabled boat about 30 nautical miles south of the Java coast.

The Indonesian search and rescue service Basarnas was notified about 1am (AEST) of a fishing boat with 75 people on board about 45km south of West Java, well inside the Indonesian search and rescue zone.

A Basarnas official said that by 6.30pm an Australian navy vessel had located the boat, with a broken engine, and the Indonesians were waiting for a call from the Australians to collect the asylum-seekers to land them back in Indonesia.

More than 35 asylum-seekers were delivered to Christmas Island yesterday after Australian authorities went to another asylum boat in the Indonesian search and rescue zone. They were the ninth group of asylum-seekers to reach the Australian territory since the federal election on September 7, though there are unconfirmed reports that another group was delivered to Darwin this week aboard a Customs vessel.

As Indonesia's Foreign Ministry released Dr Natalegawa's account of Monday's meeting, Mr Abbott insisted his government respected Indonesia's sovereignty and "we would never do or propose anything which is contrary to that".

"It is a question of working very co-operatively and constructively with our neighbours to ensure that this terrible problem, not just for us but for our region, is addressed and stopped," he said.

Ms Bishop had been obliged to deny a rift in the relationship when Dr Natalegawa said following their meeting he had made the Indonesian objections "loud and clear".

In the account released yesterday, Dr Natalegawa welcomed the "attention" given by Australia to Indonesia's sovereignty and territorial integrity. The meeting began on a positive footing with the Indonesian minister proposing a comprehensive "stocktaking" of the bilateral relationship and then a blueprint to take it to a higher level.

He said Australia could "contribute tremendously" during its UN Security Council presidency by arguing for more transparency at the council and supporting non-member countries to get their views before the Security Council.

According to his account, Dr Natalegawa did not respond directly to Ms Bishop's explanation that the Coalition had been obliged to pursue its hardline policy because of the failure of the previous Labor government's efforts to curb the flow of boatpeople. But he encouraged Ms Bishop to embed its asylum-seeker policy in the multilateral, regional Bali Process, which brings together countries of origin, transit (such as Indonesia), and destination, which is principally Australia.

The Indonesian minister asked that the new government take up the multilateral initiatives adopted by Bali Process countries in the August 20 Jakarta Declaration. The declaration was the product of an agreement between President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and then-prime minister Kevin Rudd to convene a special meeting to agree on "concrete measures" to curb the flow of irregular immigrants.

Acting opposition leader Chris Bowen seized on the “unprecedented” warning from Indonesia, saying Jakarta had made its position “crystal clear” that they regarded the Abbott government's plans as “an affront”.

“Asian diplomacy in particular is marked by understatement... this is what makes it such an extraordinary development,” Mr Bowen told ABC TV.

“It's an unprecedented step by an Indonesian foreign minister, I can't recall an Indonesian foreign minister taking a step like this in relation to Australia ever before.”

Mr Bowen said the boat turn-back policy was not an “irritant” for Indonesia but a “clear matter of principle”.

Mr Downer, the nation's previous Liberal foreign minister, joined the row last night. "Let me make this point for Mr Natalegawa's benefit: Indonesian boats, Indonesian-flagged boats with Indonesian crews are breaking our laws, bringing people into our territorial waters," he told ABC television's The Drum.

"This is a breach of our sovereignty and the Indonesians need to understand that, instead of a lot of pious rhetoric."

Indonesia's ambassador to Australia said yesterday he was sure Mr Abbott's visit to Indonesia would be fruitful.

Addressing a large group of Australian officials and foreign diplomats, Nadjib Riphat Kesoema said Australia and his country would remain close partners because they would always be good friends.

Additional reporting: Paige Taylor, Brendan Nicholson, Paul Maley, David Uren, Telly Nathalia


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