Tony Abbott will head to Indonesia for his first overseas trip as prime minister with tension between the nations over the issue of asylum-seeker boats.
Turning back the boats will be high on the agenda when Mr Abbott, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Trade Minister Andrew Robb head to Jakarta on Monday, with discussions also set to include trade and investment between the countries.
Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa has warned that any violation of its borders could damage neighbourly relations, but Mr Abbott says the countries’ bonds are strong and are based upon a range of issues.
“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,” Mr Abbott told Fairfax Radio on Friday.
“That’s one of the many reasons why it is so important to stop the boats, because I don’t want, what is in so many respects, our most important relationship to be needlessly complicated by this.”
He has promised to refocus Australia’s diplomatic and trade efforts on Asia-Pacific, which he says waned under the previous Labor government.
Mr Abbott will meet with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on Monday afternoon, followed by a broader meeting between senior members of both nations’ cabinets.
Restoring the live cattle trade and making inroads in terms of financial services, infrastructure and education will be key issues.
The coalition promised during the election that Indonesia would be a trial site for the $ 100 million New Colombo Plan from next year.
It is based on the post-war Colombo plan which brought about 40,000 future leaders to Australia for education but will be a two-way exchange, with young Australian university undergraduates also heading to Asian nations for study and internships.
The trip will include a formal dinner at the presidential palace, followed by a business breakfast on Tuesday.
Acting Labor leader Chris Bowen said the comments by Dr Natalegawa, which contradicted Ms Bishop’s categorisation of her talks with the Indonesian foreign minister, should not be taken lightly.
“It takes a special effort to endanger such an important bilateral relationship in the first week of office before Mr Abbott and Mr Yudhoyono have even met,” Mr Bowen said.
Mr Abbott said in a statement he hoped all incoming Australian prime ministers would make Jakarta their first port of call overseas.
“It would send a clear signal to the region that relations with our nearest neighbours are the most critical to Australia’s future,” he said.
Meanwhile, less than a fortnight after being charged with overseeing the government’s Operation Sovereign Borders, targeting people-smuggling activities, Lieutenant General Angus Campbell will take leave, Defence said.
The senior army officer was promoted and made commander of the joint agency task force last week, but on Saturday will begin two weeks “long standing and pre-approved leave”.
Vice Chief of the Defence Force, Air Marshal Mark Binskin, will be seconded to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection in his colleague’s absence.