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JAKARTA (AFP) – Newly reinstated Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was to meet Indonesia's president on Friday for talks focused on asylum-seekers with thousands defying deadly perils to try to reach Australia by sea.
On his first foreign trip since ousting Julia Gillard barely a week ago, the Australian leader will meet with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to tackle a subject that will be key in upcoming elections.
Despite Canberra's tough new policies banishing asylum-seekers to remote Pacific islands, thousands of would-be refugees continue to make the sea crossing to Australia, often from transit hubs in Indonesia.
Many have died trying to make the hazardous journey in crammed, rickety boats, normally after paying huge fees to people-smugglers.
Rudd has already drawn Indonesia into the domestic debate, pouring scorn on conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott and his plan to "turn back" the boats, saying this risks a diplomatic flare-up with Jakarta.
Although he is under pressure to take a tough stance on the election campaign hustings, Rudd cautioned against expecting major outcomes from the talks as he arrived in Jakarta late Thursday.
"I think it's quite wrong to have huge expectations that there's going to be some headline result out of what is a regular meeting between the prime minister of Australia and the president of Indonesia," he said.
Ahead of Rudd's visit, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa suggested Indonesia alone could not solve the problem, and said a multilateral approach was needed.
"We have been consistent in saying that this problem cannot be solved by one country," he said.
"It needs a joint effort from destination and transit countries, as well as countries of origin."
Rudd insisted that "the full breadth of our relationship" would be discussed during the trip. At a breakfast event with business leaders in Jakarta on Friday, he sought to turn the focus of the visit to trade.
"Already Indonesia's consuming class is larger than Australia's population," he said.
"Indonesia should become a vast market place for Australian goods and services and industry."
Rudd also sought to ease tensions surrounding live cattle exports, which have become a major point of conflict in trade relations between the neighbours.
Australia halted shipments to Indonesia in 2011 after TV footage showed harsh treatment of animals in the country, a move that badly hit the industry in Australia. Shipments have since resumed but in far reduced numbers.
Rudd said Friday he wanted to relax "supply constraints to the Indonesian beef market" and ensure "a steady supply of beef for Indonesia".
The former foreign minister and ex-diplomat retook the leadership after winning a ballot of Labor lawmakers who are banking on the 55-year-old to save the party, which under Gillard looked set for a crushing defeat at the hands of Abbott's opposition.
Gillard had originally set the polls for September 14 but Rudd has indicated they will be held at a different date, without saying exactly when.
Analysts say Rudd will use his two-day visit to Indonesia to try to burnish his leadership credentials on the campaign trail.
Later Friday Rudd and Yudhoyono will hold formal talks at the presidential palace in Bogor, just outside the capital, in the framework of an annual Indonesian-Australian leaders' meeting.
Given the record influx of arrivals, the Australian government has reportedly asked new Immigration Minister Tony Burke to consider other options, including stricter assessments and how to repatriate those deemed to be economic migrants.