[JAKARTA] Indonesia has dramatically slashed imports of Australian cattle, an official said Tuesday, sparking concerns that tensions between the neighbours are now affecting trade ties.
Jakarta will import 50,000 cattle in the third quarter, from July to September, a sharp reduction from 250,000 in the previous quarter and 180,000 in the same period last year, the Indonesian trade ministry said.
Indonesia is the biggest market for Australia's live export trade, which is worth about US$1 billion and employs thousands of people.
The news added to concerns about fraying ties between the neighbours, which have been hit in recent months by Jakarta's execution of two Australian drug smugglers and allegations Canberra paid to turn asylum-seekers back to Indonesia.
"I sincerely hope that our relationship with Indonesia at a political level is not the reason driving this reduction in Indonesia imports of Australian cattle," said Bill Shorten, leader of Australia's opposition Labor party.
Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce said the news was "disappointing" and he hoped to meet soon with Indonesian ministers to resolve the issue.
However, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop insisted the reduction in cattle imports was "a trade issue".
"We are in constant communication and I'm assured that it's a trade negotiation, it's not in relation to the overall Australia-Indonesia relationship, which is very strong and very good," she said.
Partogi Pangaribuan, the head of foreign trade at the Indonesian trade ministry, also denied that recent tensions were behind the decision.
"We imported 250,000 in the second quarter and we think that should be enough until August or September and domestic supply is also sufficient," he told AFP.
Under Indonesian law, cattle can only be imported if domestic supply is insufficient, he said, adding that shipments may rise in the fourth quarter. Indonesia has been pushing for several years to achieve self-sufficiency in its beef supply.
In 2011 Australia temporarily banned sending cattle to Indonesia after a documentary revealed cruel treatment of cows in Indonesian abattoirs, angering Australian exporters and encouraging Jakarta to seek out supplies from elsewhere.
Relations between the neighbours have been historically prickly and were dealt a heavy blow in April when Indonesia executed Australian traffickers Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, prompting Canberra to temporarily recall its ambassador from Jakarta.
Allegations that Australian officials paid the crew of a people-smuggling vessel US$31,000 to turn back to Indonesia in May have also angered Jakarta.
Indonesia was in the past a major departure point for vessels carrying migrants to Australia but departures have almost entirely stopped since Canberra introduced tougher border controls.