Indonesia to change the rules

November 14, 2013
Mark Kenny, Michael Bachelard

In a further blow to the federal government's asylum seeker policy, Indonesia is trying to shrink its search and rescue area, putting more responsibility on Australia to take stricken boats.

The developments come just days after Jakarta jolted the bi-lateral relationship by refusing an Australian request to land asylum seekers rescued at sea in the Indonesian search and rescue zone, in accordance with a understanding between the two countries and established international law.

Indonesia will put forward the changes at a meeting later this week but on Wednesday Indonesian Vice President, Professor Dr Boediono was in Canberra discussing increased intelligence sharing arrangements. The meeting comes after Indonesian concerns that Australia's Jakarta embassy has been used for spying.

Fairfax Media has been told that Indonesia is preparing to ask that its search and rescue area be reduced in size to limit its responsibility to undertake maritime operations in waters south of Java.

The change suggests growing Indonesian unease at being forced to accept asylum seekers rescued at sea by Australian authorities, and returned to Indonesian ports.

Meeting Dr Boediono, Prime Minister Tony Abbott addressed the spy allegations head-on, acknowledging for the first time the embarrassment caused to the Indonesian government, and proposing new measures to re-build trust and co-operation.

The meeting, which was delayed for nearly an hour while Mr Abbott stayed in the Parliament to introduce his carbon tax repeal bill, was held against a backdrop of strained relationships between the nations.

Yopi Haryadi, a senior manager in Indonesia's search and search and rescue agency Basarnas, said Indonesia's armed forces, TNI, were concerned about incursions by Australian naval assets into Indonesian territory and had taken a harder line since Australia had adopted its "new policy" under Mr Abbott and Immigration Minister Scott Morrison.

"TNI don't want the Australian vessels and also Customs and border protection [ships] too often entering Indonesian territory, so that is why the Indonesian government is [making it] hard to give the security and diplomatic clearance to the Australian vessels," Mr Yopi said.

He said he was talking about the 12-nautical mile exclusive zone.

The issue potentially causing the bigger headache turns on secret discussions over asylum seeker boats and claims from the Indonesian side about some form of people swap arrangement.

In a surprise move which has angered the Opposition, Mr Morrison extended his controversial media policy of providing minimal information on Operation Sovereign Borders, to the Parliament.

Mr Yopi insisted the asylum seeker boat that last week caused a mid-ocean standoff with Australia was 107 nautical miles south of Java when HMAS Ballarat intercepted it. This puts it well over halfway to Australia.

In his reference to the boat at the weekly Operation Sovereign Borders briefing, Australian General Angus Campbell said only that it had "first requested assistance" at 43 nautical mile point. Mr Yopi said that after it was intercepted, and while Australia was trying to convince Indonesia to take the 63 asylum seekers on board, the Australians had brought the vessel back towards Indonesian waters.

Mr Morrison did not specifically address any of Mr Yopi's points but said Indonesia was "the closest place of safety".


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