Poor Indonesian relations Abbott's opportunity?
The Abbott government might be using strained relations with Indonesia to push its boat policy, says Fairfax Media's Jakarta corespondent Michael Bachelard.PT3M1S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-30z4a 620 349 January 17, 2014
Jakarta has demanded an immediate halt to asylum-seeker boat turnbacks and announced it will send a navy frigate to bolster its southern defences after Australian ships repeatedly breached Indonesian territorial waters.
In a dramatic escalation of the standoff over border protection, Indonesia drew a line in the sand on Friday, saying it would step up its own maritime patrols in a move that could heighten the risk of confrontation.
''The government of Indonesia has the right to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity in accordance with international laws and the charter of the United Nations,'' said Agus Barnas, the spokesman for the Co-ordinating Ministry of Political, Legal and Security Affairs.
HMAS Stuart is believed to be one of three Australian navy ships to have entered Indonesian waters.
The strong response came after Australia apologised for repeatedly breaching Indonesian territorial waters.
Australian Navy and customs ships are suspected of having crossed Indonesia's 12-nautical-mile limit at least five times in the past month.
Fairfax Media understands that three navy ships - including the heavily armed frigate HMAS Stuart - and one customs ship were involved.
Staying tight lipped over the incursions: Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell, left, and the Immigration Minister Scott Morrison. Photo: Andrew Meares
Mr Barnas branded the incursions ''a serious matter in bilateral relations'' and demanded that ''such operations conducted by the Australian government that led to these incidents be suspended until formal clarification is received and assurances of non-recurrence of such incidents has been provided''.
The incursions have raised questions as to whether the Abbott government's tough policies are pushing navy and customs ships too close to Indonesia.
Sources told Fairfax Media concerns had been raised that the Operation Sovereign Borders Joint Agency Taskforce - the border protection leadership - was sending the ships to positions too close to the 12-nautical-mile limit to carry out the government's tough policies.
Illustration: Matt Golding.
In some cases, ship commanders even raised questions at the time about whether positions to which they were directed put them at risk of crossing the boundary.
One source said a review announced on Friday by Immigration Minister Scott Morrison would clarify whether border protection command and control was ''playing too fine a line in positioning the ships too close to Indonesian waters''.
Mr Morrison and the head of Operation Sovereign Borders, Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell, refused to give details of the incursions.
One of the incidents is understood to have happened while an Australian ship was rescuing asylum seekers from their foundering vessel.
But retired naval officer, Lieutenant Commander Barry Learoyd, who served on border protection operations, told Fairfax Media at least some of the incursions had most likely happened during controversial boat turnbacks.
''That's probably the only really plausible thing I can see happening … If they'd inadvertently gone over the line, it would be because they've stopped, put their seaboats in the water and make sure these vessels are being pointed in the right direction and maybe the tide or the current has taken them over the line inadvertently,'' he said.
Mr Morrison said the government had swiftly apologised to Jakarta.
The Chief of Navy, Vice-Admiral Ray Griggs - who is known to have good relations with his Indonesian counterpart - also made a personal apology.
However, a defiant Mr Morrison insisted the government would stick with its tough approach.
He and General Campbell maintained that the policies such as turnbacks were not responsible for the inadvertent incursions.
''There has been an inadvertent incursion into Indonesia's territorial sovereignty. That was not the policy of the government. This was actually in direct contradiction to the government's policy. This has occurred, it's regrettable, and we've made the appropriate apologies, but our policies are not to violate the territorial sovereignty of Indonesia.''
The Australian deputy ambassador, David Engel, conveyed the Abbott Government's apology to Indonesia in a 35-minute meeting with a senior official in Jakarta late on Friday.
Mr Engel did not comment as he emerged, except to say: "I just had a constructive, cordial meeting, i conveyed the government’s apology ... Now I have to get back to the embassy and report back to my government".