Sydney (AFP) – Australia’s Tony Abbott makes his debut foreign trip as prime minister on Monday, visiting Indonesia where he will discuss asylum-seekers following the first deadly accident involving boat people since he took power.
Conservative Abbott — who won a comfortable victory in national polls earlier this month — has vowed to make Asia his main foreign policy focus and Indonesia, where hundreds of asylum-seekers have embarked on fatal sea crossings to Australia in recent years, is a priority.
“The government is determined to ensure that Australia’s foreign policy is focussed on our region,” he said Friday as he announced his September 30-October 1 visit to Jakarta, where he will meet President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
“It is my hope that this visit establishes a convention for all future incoming prime ministers to make Jakarta their first port of call overseas,” added Abbott who will be accompanied by a 20-member business delegation.
Abbott had promised to make Indonesia his first stop as prime minister saying he would not visit traditional allies Washington or London until he had visited capitals in Asia.
Australia has a strong relationship with Indonesia, but tensions have arisen over the sensitive issue of asylum-seeker boats, many of which depart from the sprawling archipelago to head for Australia.
Abbott campaigned hard on a “stop the boats” policy and has put into place a military-led operation known as Sovereign Borders, which intends to turn boats around when safe to do so — a policy Indonesia has suggested infringes its sovereignty.
Australian and Indonesian foreign ministers discussed the issue at a meeting in New York last week at which Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said the measure could put cooperation on asylum-seekers at risk.
Abbott dismissed tensions Friday, saying “the last thing I would ever want to do is anything that doesn’t show the fullest possible respect for Indonesia’s sovereignty”.
“It’s in everyone’s interests to stop the flow of illegal boats,” Abbott said.
“The last thing that 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.”
Hours later, at least 22 people, mostly children, were reported drowned and scores were missing after an Australia-bound boat carrying Middle Eastern asylum-seekers sank off Indonesia in rough seas.
Twenty-five people were plucked to safety but more than 70 were unaccounted for after the boat carrying people from Lebanon, Jordan and Yemen went down off the main Indonesian island of Java, police said.
Analysts said Jakarta’s main concerns — more than stopping asylum-seekers — are trade and a secure food supply, something it has looked to do via investments in Australian farmland.
They said the difficulty for Abbott when he visits Jakarta will be balancing his “stop the boats” policy, given it was a central plank of his election campaign, with his desire to strengthen ties in Asia.
“Certainly I think they’ve very much gotten off on the wrong foot on the Indonesian front,” said David McRae, an Indonesia expert at independent foreign policy think-tank the Lowy Institute in Sydney.
“To commence and set the tone for relations with Indonesia, it’s an important trip,” McRae added of Abbott’s visit, which will include a one-on-one meeting with Yudhoyono and talks on strengthening economic relations.
Abbott, who will address a breakfast meeting of business leaders and lay a wreath at the Kalibata Heroes Cemetery, is also keen to bolster trade ties, with two-way trade valued at Aus$ 14.6 billion (US$ 13.6 billion) in 2012.
Adjunct professor at Queensland’s Griffith University, Colin Brown, said Abbott may have made a shaky start, but the asylum-seeker issue was “not something that is going to blight the relationship for years to come”.
“I think it will require some nifty footwork, both in Indonesia and in Australia, because he can’t politically in Australia be seen to obviously back down on things he’s promised the Australian people in front of pressure from Indonesia,” he said.
“I think they are going to have to find ways of interpreting various elements of policy, specifically the boat turn-back so you might refine it without looking as if you’ve abandoned it.”
Yudhoyono spokesman Teuku Faizasyah said: “The decision by Prime Minister Abbott to begin his period of governance with a visit to Indonesia reflected a spirit to go forward, and to strengthen cooperation.
“This is a decision Indonesia appreciates.”