Tony Abbott held “frank” talks with his Indonesia counterpart on his first overseas trip as prime minister, even as he failed to secure agreement on how best to halt the flow of asylum-seeker boats to Australia.
“We had a very frank discussion on the issue of sovereignty and the issue of people smuggling,” Abbott said in a joint briefing with Indonesia President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Jakarta last night. “We are resolved and united to tackle this issue.”
Abbott, 55, whose election vow to “stop the boats” was met with criticism in Jakarta, reassured Yudhoyono during their talks that Australia would respect Indonesia’s sovereignty, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told reporters in Jakarta yesterday. “This is a common challenge requiring a common response,” he said.
Still, Abbott did not detail any specifics from his discussions with Indonesia on how the two would work together to stop the flow of asylum-seeker boats carrying people from war-torn countries such as Afghanistan, even as one boat sank and other boats arrived in Australian waters.
“I think Abbott was hoping SBY would agree to some new cooperative arrangements for dealing with boat people,” said Greg Fealy, an associate professor at Canberra’s Australian National University, referring to Yudhoyono. “If SBY didn’t, then that would be a blow for Abbott,” he said by e-mail.
Abbott takes over as Australia steps up on the world stage, assuming the presidency of the United Nations Security Council and hosting next year’s Group of 20 meetings. He has signaled a more low-key approach than his predecessors and a priority for Asia ties, saying he will look toward “Jakarta, not Geneva.”
After his meetings in Jakarta, Abbott will attend summits with leaders such as U.S. President Barack Obama as he promotes his message that “Australia is once more open for business” after the Liberal-National coalition won the Sept. 7 election.
He faces the task of balancing Australia’s interests between main ally the U.S. -- which bases troops in the north of the country -- and top trading partner China, a position complicated by his pledge to toughen foreign-ownership rules on agricultural land. A pressing domestic policy slate and a hostile upper house of parliament may distract Abbott from his offshore agenda early in his term.
“A maiden international trip for a new leader is often icing on the honeymoon-period cake, but Abbott’s Indonesia visit will potentially be a lot more prickly than that,” said Haydon Manning, a politics professor at Flinders University in Adelaide. “The region he is visiting can be sensitive so he will be keen to portray a steady, statesmanlike image.”
Abbott sought during the election campaign to woo voters concerned that asylum-seekers were living off welfare payments and taking employment opportunities.
While his message fared well domestically, a vow to deploy the Navy to return boats to Indonesian waters and his suggestion to use informants to buy and destroy fishing vessels suspected of being involved in people-smuggling hurt ties with Jakarta, said Hamish McDonald, a Sydney-based journalist in residence at the Australian National University.
The comments “hinted at taking unilateral action on Indonesian soil regardless of their cooperation,” said McDonald, author of the book “Suharto’s Indonesia.” “He can’t afford to be seen threatening territorial integrity or sovereignty,” he said.
Abbott’s trip comes after a boat bound for Australia sank off the coast of Java with 31 people confirmed dead, Air Marshal Mark Binskin, Vice Chief of the Defence Force, said at a briefing in Sydney yesterday. Three vessels arrived in the past week and 128 people were transfered to processing centers, Binskin said. Another boat arrived yesterday, he said, without giving details.
Abbott said Australia needed to do more to build an economic partnership with neighbor Indonesia, especially in agriculture. The two countries agreed to boost investment, trade and air transport links, Yudhoyono said at their joint press conference.
Abbott will need to convince leaders he is serious about prioritizing relationships in Asia. He has appointed Trade Minister Andrew Robb to make headway on free-trade deals with countries such as China, Japan, South Korea, India and Indonesia alongside the broader Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.
At the same time, he’s raised eyebrows for his comments, writing in his 2009 book “Battlelines” about what he called the virtues of the Anglosphere. “Overwhelmingly, the modern world is one that’s been made in English,” he said.
Such language could be misinterpreted in Asia, said Greg Barton, a professor at Monash University’s School of Political and Social Inquiry in Melbourne. “Language like that can undo some good work and intentions,” he said.
Key to Abbott’s international agenda will be balancing ties with the U.S. and China, a nation with which two-way trade reached A$117.7 billion ($110 billion) last year. He will attend next week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders summit in Bali and then the East Asia Summit in Brunei.
Australia’s alliance with America intensified under Julia Gillard, the Labor prime minister from 2010-2013, when she allowed the U.S. to base as many as 2,500 Marines in Darwin, a city in the far north close to Indonesia.
That spurred criticism from China, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin saying it “may not be appropriate.”
Abbott has said he wants foreign investment, although he told an audience in Beijing in last year that Chinese purchases of Australian assets were complicated by the prevalence of state-owned enterprises. He plans to lower the threshold for purchases of agricultural land requiring regulatory approval to A$15 million from A$244 million currently.
While the previous Labor government of Kevin Rudd -- a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat -- pushed for greater clout at bodies such as the UN, Abbott has indicated a more low-key approach. He was criticized by Rudd for downplaying Australia’s influence when asked whether Australia should be involved in potential military intervention in Syria.
“I don’t think we should be getting above ourselves here,” Abbott said in an ABC interview in early September. “We are a significant middle power but no more.”
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