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Indonesian Foreign Minister Criticizes Abbott's Boat Plans

Australia's conservative leader Tony Abbott gestures as he claims victory in Australia's federal election during an election night function in Sydney, Sept. 7, 2013.
Days before Australia’s new conservative Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, is scheduled to visit Jakarta, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said Canberra’s plans to turn migrant boats away from Australian waters could damage bilateral relations.

To stem a steady flow of asylum seekers arriving by sea, Australia’s recently elected conservative government intends to tow migrant boats away from its territorial waters. Most unauthorized vessels would be sent back to Indonesia, from where the majority initially set sail.

The plan has agitated Indonesian authorities. Following talks this week at the United Nations in New York with his Australian counterpart, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa released a statement stressing that any unilateral action taken by Australia would potentially damage the close cooperation and trust between the countries.

Jakarta insists that Canberra’s tow-back policy would infringe Indonesia’s sovereignty. However, the assertion has angered a former Australian foreign minister, Alexander Downer, who has accused Indonesian officials of hypocrisy.

“Let me make this point for Mr. Natalegawa's benefit. Indonesian boats, Indonesian flagged boats with Indonesian crews are breaking our laws bringing people into our territorial waters. This is a breach of our sovereignty,” said Downer.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is due to visit Indonesia next week. It will be his first official overseas trip. Abbott has so far brushed aside disagreements over asylum seekers between Canberra and Jakarta as a "passing irritant". Abbott has also insisted that he is committed to maintaining a good relationship with Indonesia.

Acting opposition Labor leader Chris Bowen, however, says Natalegawa’s criticism of Australia shows that the tensions run deep.

“I can't recall an Indonesian foreign minister taking a step like this in relation to Australia ever before. It underlines the seriousness of Indonesia's approach. It underlines what a threat this is to an important bilateral relationship,” said Bowen.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is also warning Australia’s new government that it will struggle to turn back asylum boats without Indonesian cooperation.

The previous Labor government increased Australia's annual humanitarian intake of refugees from 13,750 to 20,000. Prime Minister Abbott says his administration plans to return the intake to its previous level to save money.