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Prime Minister Tony Abbott has moved to calm the waters with Indonesia on the issue of asylum seeker boats, insisting that Australia has a ''strong and close'' relationship with its neighbour and that his government would never do anything foolish.
Tony's Indonesia challenge
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Tony's Indonesia challenge
Tony Abbott's 1st overseas trip as Prime Minister looms as a tough one with critical neighbour Indonesia opposed to the new PM's 'tow back' plan for asylum boats.
Mr Abbott's comments come ahead of a planned meeting with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono next week and amid an escalating war of words between Australia and Indonesia on the boats issue.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has taken the unusual step of releasing a detailed statement about his meeting with Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop earlier this week, which shows him warning the Abbott government against taking any "unilateral steps" which would risk "cooperation and trust" between the two countries.
Ms Bishop, who has been in New York all week representing Australia at the 68th session of the UN General Assembly, unusually refused a request to speak to world media after her landmark role, prompting speculation she was unwilling to face potential questions on the increasing tensions with Indonesia.
Former foreign minister Alexander Downer has also weighed into the debate, arguing it is Australia's sovereignty that is threatened by asylum seeker vessels. On ABC TV on Thursday, Mr Downer said that Indonesia bore a "heavy responsibility" for boat arrivals and was using "pious rhetoric" on the issue.
The Indonesian foreign ministry and the Ambassador to Australia have both since issued statements saying the meeting transcript was not intended to be issued or reported as a press release, because the meeting was private.
The Indonesian government "stands ready to work with each Australian government and all its political stakeholders to ensure that the best interests of both are people are fulfilled".
On Friday in an interview with Fairfax Radio, Mr Abbott insisted that Australia's relationship with Indonesia was strong - painting the boats issue as merely a ''passing irritant''.
''We have a strong and close relationship with Indonesia,'' he said.
''The last thing I would ever want to do is anything that doesn't show the fullest possible respect for Indonesia's sovereignty.''
Mr Abbott said his government would not do ''foolish things'' with respect to Indonesia.
''The last thing that anyone should want is to have Australia's relationship with Indonesia defined by this boats issue, which I am sure will be but a passing irritant.''
The Prime Minister also distanced himself from the remarks made by his former cabinet colleague, Mr Downer.
''Alexander is Alexander. And I'm now the Prime Minister of our country, and I am charged with building the closest possible relationship with Indonesia.''
Acting opposition leader and former immigration minister Chris Bowen said the Indonesian government has made its position ''crystal clear'' that they regard the Abbott government's plans as ''an affront''.
''Asian diplomacy in particular is marked by understatement... this is what makes it such an extraordinary development,'' Mr 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.''
Indonesia needs to 'accept' some responsbility
When asked how many asylum seekers had arrived in Australia since he was made Prime Minister, Mr Abbott did not give an exact figure but said he thought there had been ''a couple of hundred'' since he was sworn in on September 18.
''The key change since the swearing in ... is that now anyone who gets here illegally by boat is out of the country to Nauru or Manus within 48 hours and they're never coming back.''
Under a new policy introduced by the Coalition, the government no longer announces each boat as it arrives, leaving updates to a weekly media briefing.
However, it has been reported that another boat arrived at Christmas Island on Thursday, carrying about 80 people.
On Friday morning, Mr Downer continued his blunt criticism of Indonesia's role in the people-smuggling trade, and said Australia shouldn't allow ''ourselves to be bullied by the Indonesians in this way''.
Mr Downer said the Indonesian government needed to accept some responsibility for the people-smuggling problem.
''They do have to understand that it's their boats with their crews, their flagged boats, which are breaking our sovereignty and are breaking our law by transgressing our national borders, our maritime borders,'' Mr Downer told Fairfax Radio.
''When we say we'd like to turn back the boats, they need to understand, and they need to understand very clearly, that it is ... their people who are breaking our law and I think they have to be told this very directly.
''There's no point in allowing ourselves to be bullied by the Indonesians in this way. I mean, we have to stand up for ourselves and stand up for our national interest and be prepared to call it as it is. I can understand the [Australian] government not doing that, but since I'm not part of the government, I'm quite happy to.''
With Michael Bachelard, AAP