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Australian PM seeks to repair strained ties on Indonesia visit

Thursday, November 12, 2015 - 06:51

[JAKARTA] Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull makes his first visit to Indonesia on Thursday since taking power, seeking to repair a key relationship strained by repeated crises under his conservative predecessor.

Ties between the neighbours sank to their lowest level in years under former premier Tony Abbott, with rows erupting over Jakarta's execution of Australian drug smugglers, Canberra's hardline policy of turning migrant boats back to Indonesia, and espionage allegations.

But there are hopes relations will improve under Mr Turnbull, who took power in a Liberal Party coup in September. His views are more socially liberal than Mr Abbott, whose tough approach - in particular the boat turn-back policy - often riled Jakarta.

"I think this visit will be quite important because it marks an opportunity for a reset in the wake of Tony Abbott's departure," Tim Lindsey, an Indonesia expert from the University of Melbourne, told Australia's ABC radio.

Mr Turnbull will hold talks with Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Jakarta during the one-day visit, which will have "a particular focus on trade and economic ties", according to the Australian government.

The allies are key trade partners, with Indonesia a major market for Australian exports, including cattle and wheat.

Jakarta and Canberra work together in a number of other areas, including combating Muslim extremism.

Fears are growing in both Muslim-majority Indonesia and Australia that their nationals who have fought with the Islamic State group in the Middle East could launch attacks on their return home.

It is Mr Turnbull's second foreign visit since taking power - his first was to New Zealand - and he will go on afterwards to several international summits.

Despite the long-standing ties, under Mr Abbott's leadership the relationship sank to its worst level since 1999 when Australia sent troops to East Timor to stem bloodshed after the territory voted for independence from Indonesia.

Tensions peaked in April when Jakarta put to death two Australian drug traffickers, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, despite repeated appeals from Canberra for mercy.

Australia took the unprecedented step of recalling its ambassador from Jakarta following the executions.

Indonesia has also been angered by Mr Abbott's hardline immigration policies, which were aimed at stopping the flow of asylum-seeker boats to Australia and include turning vessels back to Indonesia - a key transit point for migrants - when it is safe to do so.

The issue blew up again in June when Australian officials were accused of paying people-smugglers heading to New Zealand US$31,000 to take asylum-seekers back to Indonesia.

The relationship was rocky from the early days of Mr Abbott's premiership. A row erupted in 2013, shortly after he took power, over allegations Australian spies tried to tap the phone of then Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono several years earlier.

Despite the recent tensions, there have been signs that the relationship is getting back on track.

Visits by Australian ministers - which were frozen following the executions - have resumed in recent months, while Indonesia's ambassador to Australia, Nadjib Riphat Kesoema, said this week the neighbours were again enjoying "very good relations".

AFP