News that the Australian Navy physically forced a boat of asylum seekers back to Indonesia is likely to inflame tensions between the two countries.
The issue of turning back asylum seeker boats has been a sticking point since well before the relationship became strained over the spying scandal last year.
Leaked notes from a meeting between Indonesia’s foreign minister Marty Natelegawa and his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop, show Dr Natalegawa warned that Australia was risking trust and cooperation between the two countries.
Despite previous warnings from Indonesia in the preceding months, Ms Bishop told Dr Natalegawa that Australia would press ahead with the policy.
Tow back details
Indonesian authorities say the Australian Navy forced an asylum seeker boat back towards Indonesia, where it ran out of fuel and ran aground.
The incident allegedly happened shortly before Christmas last year but was only reported in local Indonesian news now, after refugee rights activists noticed reports and posted them on Twitter.
Indonesia’s government newswire Antara says a group of 47 asylum seekers was arrested by police on Rote Island, in Indonesia’s East Nusa Tenggara region, last month.
Local police chief Hidayat says the people had been on a boat trying to get to the Ashmore Islands, but were intercepted by the Australian Navy and forced back to Indonesian waters.
He says the group left South Sulewesi bound for Australia on the December 8.
They were then intercepted on December 13 by the Australian Navy and “pushed” or forced back to Indonesian waters.
About six days later on December 19, they were found having run out of fuel and run aground on Rote Island, where Indonesian authorities picked them up.
Antara says the group was mostly made up of Sudanese and Somalian asylum seekers.
In late September, Tony Abbott made his first trip to Jakarta as Prime Minister and promised president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono publicly that Australia would never do anything to “violate Indonesia’s sovereignty.”
It was a reference to how Indonesia had termed the concept of turning boats back.
But just days beforehand, Australian authorities insisted that Indonesia’s rescue agency, Basarnas, accept the passengers from two boats rescued en route to Australia.
The move prompted Indonesia to stop rescue agencies from facilitating such transfers and instead make the issue a political one.
Mr Yudhoyono appointed the powerful coordinating minister for politics, law and security, Djoko Suyanto, to oversee Indonesia’s response to asylum seekers.
Djoko Suyanto, a close ally of the president, later made it clear when Australia attempted to return another boatload of asylum seekers, that it would not accept returns.
In early November, as Australia attempted to return a boatload of asylum seekers to Java, Djoko Suyanto told ABC News that Indonesia’s position would not change.
After nearly two days the Australian Government gave in and sent the asylum seekers to Christmas Island.