Boats a 'passing irritant' to Indonesia ties, Australia PM

Published September 26, 2013

| AFP

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott Friday described asylum-seekers arriving by boat from Indonesia as a "passing irritant" to the relationship, days before visiting the archipelago in his first foreign trip as premier.

Abbott, who took power this month after winning national polls, has ordered a military-led border protection plan to deter boatpeople which will see vessels turned back when it is safe to do so.

The Australian leader denied the plan would jeopardise relations with northern neighbour Indonesia, which has been cool towards the scheme it has suggested infringes its sovereignty.

"The last thing I would ever want to do is anything that doesn't show the fullest possible respect for Indonesia's sovereignty," Abbott told Fairfax Radio.

"This is a broad and deep relationship which is going to get broader and deeper over time.

"The last thing anyone should want is to have Australia's relationship with Indonesia defined by this boats issue, which I am sure will be but a passing irritant."

Abbott's comments come after former foreign minister Alexander Downer called on Indonesia, which many asylum-seekers use as a staging post as they journey to Australia by sea, to stop the "pious rhetoric".

At a meeting in New York on Monday with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Indonesia's Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa warned his country would not accept violations of its borders.

"Let me make this point for Mr. Natalegawa's benefit: Indonesian-flagged boats with Indonesian crews are breaking our laws bringing people into our territorial waters," Downer told national broadcaster ABC.

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

Abbott, who visits Indonesia next week in the first foreign trip of his prime ministership, said he did not see the issue as jeopardising ties with Jakarta.

"If Australia did something foolish obviously it could be (in jeopardy), but the incoming government will not do foolish things," Abbott said.

"We will do strong and sensible things which build on the good relationship that we already have with Indonesia."

Interim opposition Labor leader Chris Bowen said it was clear that Indonesia saw Abbott's military-led Operation Sovereign Borders as "an affront".

"This is not an irritant to the Indonesian government; this is a clear matter of principle for them," Bowen said.

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