Australia, Indonesia Approaching A Stand-Off Over Who Is Responsible For People Smugglers' Boats

Marty Natalegawa. Photo: Getty Images

Alexander Downer has told the Indonesian Foreign Minister boats registered in his country are breaching Australia’s sovereignty when they arrive in Australia with asylum seekers, and that it should drop the “pious rhetoric”.

On ABC Television Downer — who was Australia’s longest-serving foreign minister under John Howard — addressed Marty Natalegawa directly, saying he should not be “taking shots” at the Coalition government, whose policy is to tow some boats of Asylum seekers back into Indonesian waters.

Indonesia has expressed its disappointment with the new Australian government’s policy towards people smugglers and the arrival of asylum seekers, who often use West Java as a departure point for the dangerous trip.

Downer told Business Insider today through a spokesperson he “only makes his comments as a private citizen”.

Natalegawa recently released the details of a discussion he had with Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in New York, an unusual diplomatic move which will flame the already tense debate over how both countries deal with people smugglers.

“Let me make this point for Mr Natalegawa’s benefit: Indonesian-flagged boats with Indonesian crews are breaking our laws bringing people into our our territorial waters,” he said.

“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.”

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said he wants to concentrate on Australia’s relationship with Indonesia. He will meet Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Jakarta, in his first official visit since winning Australia’s federal election.

Though his policy on asylum seeker boats — which were a major election issue the Coalition campaigned on –threatens to sour talks between the two countries. The Coalition’s Operation Sovereign Borders includes provisions for the Navy to tow people smuggling boats out of Australian waters “when safe to do so”. Indonesia says this impeaches on its sovereignty

The released details of the discussion show Natalegawa warning Bishop that Australia’s plans turn boats back to Indonesia could jeopardise trust and cooperation between the two countries.

It also says Bishop advised him Australia wanted to deal with the issue “behind the scenes” and “quietly”. The release of the details has been perceived as a deliberate attempt to thwart this.

Acting leader of The Opposition Chris Bowen has said Downer’s comments could be taken as a reflection of The Government’s stance. He called on the Coalition to “come out of hiding” to address them.

‘Asian diplomacy in particular is marked by understatement… this is what makes it such an extraordinary development,” Bowen told ABC TV on Thursday night. “It’s an unprecedented step by an Indonesian foreign minister, I can’t recall an Indonesian foreign minister taking a step like this in relation to Australia ever before.”

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