Relations between Australia and Indonesia, already frayed by a spying scandal last year, have reached a new low thanks to a dispute over migrants seeking to enter Australia illegally by sea.
Two months after recalling its ambassador over reports Canberra bugged President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s phone, Jakarta is beefing up its military presence on its maritime border.
The move came after Australia owned up to straying into Indonesian waters while shooing asylum-seeker boats back towards the Indonesian coast.
Jakarta is obviously furious. Air Commodore Hadi Tjahjanto warned that Australia is “reachable” by Indonesia’s 16 Russian-made Sukhoi fighter jets.
In Canberra the hope is that the sabre-rattling reflects not genuine outrage but wounded national pride and political tension heightened by upcoming presidential elections.
Australian National University intelligence expert Clive Williams believes Prime Minister Tony Abbott blundered by admitting to the border incursions in the first place.
The navy “inadvertently” crossed into Indonesian waters during operations to thwart asylum-seeker boats that are generally crewed by Indonesians.
Abbott and his conservatives won the September elections partly by pledging to stop the traffic and restore the integrity of Australia’s borders.
During the now-opposition Labor party’s six years in office beginning 2007, 812 boats arrived from Indonesia with 51,000 mostly Middle Eastern asylum-seekers aboard.
After his first 100 days in office, Abbott claimed success thanks to controversial policies that included sending arrivals to processing centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, denying those who are successful in claiming asylum the automatic right to bring their families to Australia and, most controversially, turning back the boats before they enter Australian waters.
For the past five weeks no asylum-seeker boat has made it past Australia’s naval cordon.
“We have our foot on the neck of the smugglers and we’re not going to give them any relief,” Immigration Minister Scott Morrison claimed.
Jakarta regards the repulsion of asylum-seeker boats that set out from its ports as an affront to its sovereignty. Because of the spying allegations, it has already called off its co-operation with Canberra against people smuggling.
Perth-based Indonesia Institute head Ross Taylor, writing in The Australian, questioned the wisdom of turning back boats in the run-up to the Indonesian poll in July.
Australia and Indonesia will have to work together to overcome the problem. Instead of worsening the situation by issuing irresponsible statements, Australian and Indonesian officials should meet to chalk out a joint strategy.