Australia PM seeks to lower tension over asylum seekers ahead of Indonesia visit

CANBERRA Fri Sep 27, 2013 2:14am EDT

Australia's new conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott (C) sits between his Foreign Minister Julie Bishop (R) and deputy Prime Minister, Warren Truss during the first meeting of his full ministry in the Cabinet Room of Parliament House in Canberra September 18, 2013. REUTERS/Lucas Coch/Pool

Australia's new conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott (C) sits between his Foreign Minister Julie Bishop (R) and deputy Prime Minister, Warren Truss during the first meeting of his full ministry in the Cabinet Room of Parliament House in Canberra September 18, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Lucas Coch/Pool

CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia's new conservative government sought on Friday to ease tension with neighboring Indonesia over a ramping up of border security meant to deter asylum seekers, with Prime Minister Tony Abbott calling concerns about his plan a "passing irritant".

Abbott, who arrives in Jakarta on Monday on his first overseas visit since winning the September 7 election, played down comments by Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa that clouded Canberra's portrayal of talks on Australia's tough new policy to turn asylum boats back at sea as "cordial".

"The last thing I would ever want to do is anything that doesn't show the fullest possible respect for Indonesia's sovereignty," Abbott told Australian radio.

Abbott will next week meet President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to seek support for his promise to have Australia's navy turn asylum seekers away and break the business of people traffickers operating mainly from Indonesian ports.

But the plan has opposition within Australia's northern neighbor of 245 million people, where lawmakers including Natalegawa have sharply criticized Abbott's policy to buy up fishing boats and pay Indonesian villagers for intelligence on people-smuggling gangs.

In a transcript released in Jakarta of meetings between Natalegawa and Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in New York, the Indonesian minister warned the issue could sour relations if enforced unilaterally by Canberra.

The record of conversation, which Indonesia's embassy in Canberra said was not meant "to create the impression of discord", rebuffed Bishop's earlier assertions of having held "positive" and "cordial" meetings with her veteran counterpart.

The record was quickly removed from the Indonesian ministry website after sparking a media storm in Australia. Indonesian officials were unavailable for comment.

Abbott has ranked Indonesia as Australia's "most important single relationship" and sought to play down perceptions of a rift that could threaten his own country's ambitions to expand trade and political ties with Asian neighbors.

Abbott has promised to be an "Asia First" prime minister, visiting regional trade partners ahead of traditional allies like the United States and Britain, in part to help counter a slowing of the $1.5 trillion economy, the world's 12th largest.

He said he hoped the visit, on which he would be accompanied by Bishop and Trade Minister Andrew Robb, as well as 20 senior business people, would set a precedent for future Australian leaders to make Jakarta their first overseas port of call.

"It would send a clear signal to the region that relations with our nearest neighbors are the most critical to Australia's future," Abbott said in a statement.

But former foreign minister Alexander Downer - a mentor to Bishop - warned Natalegawa against "taking shots" at Canberra and said Indonesian-flagged boats were breaking Australian law by transporting asylum seekers.

"This is a breach of our sovereignty and the Indonesians need to understand that, instead of a lot of pious rhetoric about the Australian Government breaching their sovereignty," Downer told Australian television.

Both G20 members, Australian and Indonesia have a history of occasionally brittle relations dating back to the rule of former strongman Suharto between 1966 and 1998, including Indonesia's 1975 invasion of tiny East Timor, a former Portuguese colony northwest of the Australian city of Darwin.

Since his 2004 election, Yudhoyono has steered a rebuilding of relations, helped by Australian aid to Indonesia worth A$574 million ($543 million) last year.

Yudhoyono has usually been willing to soften criticism of Australia by his officials, but he was also the only Indonesian leader to withdraw an ambassador from Australia, ironically over a 2006 row about Australia granting asylum to Indonesian separatists from Papua province.

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Thatcher in JAKARTA; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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