Australia PM drops Indonesia trip amid asylum boat reports

File photo: Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (right) talks to Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott at the presidential palace in Jakarta on 30 September 2013 Australia and Indonesia are key allies and trading partners, but relations became strained following a spying row

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Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has abruptly cancelled a planned visit to Indonesia, sparking criticism from opposition politicians.

He was due to meet Indonesia's president next week, in an apparent bid to improve ties between the countries.

Relations had been strained by Australia's reported policy of turning back boats carrying asylum seekers from Indonesia, as well as a spying row.

Reports say Australia has intercepted another boat, angering Jakarta.

Indonesia insists that sending back boatloads of asylum seekers, known as tow-backs, violates its sovereignty.

'Embarrassment'

Mr Abbott had been expected to attend the Open Government Partnership conference in Bali, at the invitation of Indonesian leader Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, early next week.

However, his spokesman told the Australian Associated Press (APP) on Friday that "the attempt to make a trip to Indonesia has been postponed, but we are hopeful of finding another date soon".

No reason was given for the cancellation but Australian media said the decision was due to the current operation to turn back an asylum boat.

An "on-water operation" was taking place that could cause "embarrassment" to Indonesia, ABC news said, citing government sources.

File photo: Rescuers assist survivors arriving on fishing boat at the wharf of Cidaun, West Java, Indonesia, 24 July 2013, after an Australia-bound boat carrying asylum-seekers sank Indonesia is a transit point for many asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia by boat

The West Australian reported that customs officials were rushing to block an asylum boat spotted in Australian waters.

Strained allies

Indonesia's presidential spokesman Teuku Faizasyah told AAP he viewed Mr Abbott's decision as a "notification he could not attend" rather than a "cancellation".

Australia and asylum

  • Asylum-seekers - mainly from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq and Iran - travel to Australia's Christmas Island on rickety boats from Indonesia
  • The number of boats rose sharply in 2012 and the beginning of 2013, and dozens of people have died making the journey
  • The Labor government reintroduced offshore processing in Nauru and Papua New Guinea - conditions in its detention camps there have been condemned by UN agencies and rights groups
  • The Tony Abbott-led Liberal-National coalition government, elected in September 2013, introduced "Operation Sovereign Borders", putting the military in control of asylum operations
  • In January reports emerged of Australian navy vessels turning asylum boats back to Indonesia - the UN refugee agency says such tow-backs may breach international law
  • In January, Australia apologised for multiple violations of Indonesia's territorial waters by navy vessels on asylum operations
  • Relatively small numbers of asylum seekers are involved: UNHCR's Asylum Trends 2012 report said Australia received only 3% of global asylum applications in 2012

"I think there's no disappointment from the Indonesian government," he said.

But opposition Labor foreign affairs spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek said: "It's very important the prime minister discloses the reason that he's really not going, because Australians deserve to know why he's putting further pressure on the relationship with such an important neighbour."

Meanwhile, Greens leader Christine Milne said Mr Abbott's actions were "an embarrassment".

Australia and Indonesia are key allies and trading partners.

Canberra requires Indonesia's co-operation on its asylum policy, but tensions rose after Australian navy vessels were widely reported to be turning asylum boats back to Indonesia.

Indonesia has described the approach as unhelpful, while the UN refugee agency says such tow-backs may breach international law.

The government has refused to comment on these reports, citing operational sensitivities.

In April, Australia apologised after admitting that its navy violated Indonesia's territorial waters during operations to prevent asylum boats reaching Australian waters.

Ties were also strained in November over leaked documents that alleged that Australia had spied on phone calls involving Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Jakarta recalled its ambassador to Australia and suspended joint military exercises following the reports.

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