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Abbott Seeks to Repair Indonesia Ties After Phone Tap Revelation

Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono
Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia's president, speaks to journalists during a press conference at the presidential palace in Jakarta on Nov. 20, 2013. Photographer: Adek Berry/AFP via Getty Images

Nov. 24 (Bloomberg) -- Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott wrote to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as he seeks to repair relations after claims the phones of Indonesia’s leaders were tapped.

Yudhoyono called a halt to cooperation with the Abbott government on asylum seekers and military operations after withdrawing his ambassador from Canberra last week, as tensions escalated to their highest level in 14 years amid claims the phones of Indonesia’s leaders were tapped. The government is reviewing cattle exports from Australia, Trade Minister Gita Wirjawan said yesterday, in the first sign the spying spat may affect trade between the neighbors.

“One of the fundamental tasks of my government is to ensure that our relationship with Indonesia goes from strength to strength,” Abbott said in Sydney yesterday, according to an e-mailed transcript. “I have written to President Yudhoyono and the letter is now in the process of being delivered,” he said, declining to comment on the content.

Abbott, whose government was elected two months ago, said on Nov. 19 that “Australia should not be expected to apologize for the steps we take to defend this country.” He said he regretted any embarrassment to Yudhoyono, while defending security measures implemented by past governments.

Yudhoyono has received Abbott’s letter and is studying it, said Teuku Faizasyah, a spokesman for the president.

Several hundred people gathered outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta on Nov. 21, burning that country’s flag, police said. Indonesians were demanding an apology from Australia, said protester Donny Manurung, from a local youth group, and more rallies were planned.

Cattle Exports

Indonesia, which takes more than 60 percent of Australia’s live cattle exports, may revise rules to let it import from other countries, Wirjawan said in Jakarta. Malaysia buys most of its beef from India at half the price of Australian meat, and Indonesia should act to follow that, Wirjawan said.

Two-way trade between Australia and Indonesia, which includes wheat, oil and dairy products, reached A$14.6 billion ($13.4 billion) last year.

Yudhoyono’s mobile phone activity was tracked for 15 days in August 2009, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. said on its website Nov. 18, citing documents leaked by Edward Snowden, a former U.S. intelligence contractor who is wanted in the U.S. for releasing secret information. At least once, intelligence agencies tried to listen to a conversation although the call lasted less than a minute and couldn’t be tapped, it said.

“Obviously there will be good days and there will be better days but my determination is to ensure that the relationship is constantly improving,” Abbott said yesterday. Yudhoyono “has been a very good friend to Australia, one of the best friends we’ve ever had,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Sharples in Melbourne at bsharples@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stanley James at sjames8@bloomberg.net

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