Australian prime minister Tony Abbott yesterday canceled a trip to Indonesia amid reports that an asylum seeker turnback operation was underway that could renew tensions between the neighbors.
Abbott’s office confirmed he no longer intended to travel to Bali on Tuesday for a meeting with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, but declined to go into the reasons for putting off the visit, which had been seen as a thawing of ties tested by recent rows over espionage and Australia’s controversial refugee policies.
“The prime minister was hoping to attend the Open Government Partnership conference in Bali next week at the invitation of His Excellency President Yudhoyono. The prime minister is grateful for the invitation... Unfortunately the prime minister is unable to attend at this time and he hopes to visit Indonesia to meet with the president at a mutually convenient time,” a spokesman for Abbott told reporters.
It would have been Abbott’s first trip to Indonesia since revelations in November last year that Australian spies tried in 2009 to tap the telephones of Yudhoyono, his wife and other members of his inner circle.
Jakarta reacted strongly to the news, recalling its ambassador and halting cooperation in areas including defense and human-smuggling. Tensions were further inflamed by Canberra’s military-led crackdown on asylum seekers making their way to Australia by boat from Indonesia.
The Australian Broadcasting Corp (ABC) said this week’s trip was canceled due to a people-smuggling vessel being intercepted under the “Operation Sovereign Borders” policy, where boats are turned back to Indonesia when it is safe to do so.
Citing government sources, ABC said there were fears Abbott’s visit would be an “embarrassment” to Yudhoyono if it went ahead.
Australia refuses to disclose details of its refugee turnback operations, citing security reasons.
The nation’s opposition Green and Labor parties urged Abbott to reveal his reasons for canceling the trip, accusing him of further damaging ties with Jakarta by doing so.
“It’s ironic that the invitation to Indonesia was to a conference on open government and our prime minister won’t tell us why he’s rejected the invitation at this late stage... It’s very important the prime minister discloses the reason that he’s not going, because Australians deserve to know why he’s putting further pressure on the relationship with such an important neighbor,” Labor Party foreign affairs spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek said.