Australian PM Tony Abbott seeks to ease refugee tensions in Indonesia

Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (R) talks to Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott (L) after a joint statement at the presidential palace in Jakarta on September 30, 2013. Abbott began a visit to Indonesia on September 30 for talks on his tough refugee policies that have sparked anger in Jakarta, as his government faced criticism over a boat sinking that left dozens dead or missing.

Australia's new Prime Minister Tony Abbott insisted Monday that his country has "total respect" for Indonesia's sovereignty after his tough refugee policies, including towing asylum-seekers' boats back to Indonesia, sparked anger.

As his government back home defended itself from criticism over a deadly asylum boat sinking off Indonesia last week, the visiting Australian leader and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono sought to present a united front on the issue despite recent tensions.

Abbott picked Indonesia for his first overseas trip since becoming premier as he tries to bolster ties with Asia. But the visit has been overshadowed by his hardline policies and Friday's deadly boat accident.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa had led a series of complaints from officials and lawmakers that Abbott's tow-back policy, part of his "stop the boats" campaign, could infringe Indonesian sovereignty.

But following talks with Yudhoyono in the presidential palace in Jakarta, Abbott struck a far more conciliatory tone than he had used during the election campaign.

"I do want to stress publicly as well as privately... Australia's total respect for Indonesia's sovereignty, a total respect for Indonesia's territorial integrity," he said at a joint press conference with Yudhoyono.

Abbott said he and Yudhoyono had "very frank discussions" and wanted to "end this scourge" of people-smuggling.

"We are resolved together, united, to tackle this problem and to beat it, on land and at sea, at the borders of our countries," he said.

Yudhoyono said Indonesia was also burdened by asylum-seekers passing through, adding: "Australia and Indonesia are both countries that have become victims, we have become victims of these acts of people-smuggling."

Abbott, who won a comfortable election victory in early September, was given a ceremonial, red-carpet welcome at the presidential palace, which involved scores of soldiers marching to the music of a brass band.

He had sought to shift the focus of his visit to trade — he is accompanied by a 20-member business delegation and Trade Minister Andrew Robb — but the sinking off Indonesia's Java island last week kept the issue in sharp focus.

The death toll from the accident, which involved Middle Eastern asylum-seekers, rose to 39 on Monday, officials said, with more feared missing.

Canberra has been forced to defend its actions after survivors said their calls for help to Australia went unheeded following the accident, which was the first fatal asylum boat sinking since Abbott came to power.

Survivors of the accident told journalists that they sent their GPS coordinates to Australian rescuers to assist them — but no one came to their aid.

But on Monday Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison dismissed questions over Australia's response as "offensive" and rejected suggestions that help was promised by Australian authorities that never materialised.

He said the tragedy had "occurred in Indonesia's search-and-rescue region, close — very close — to the Indonesian coast".

Hundreds have died in fatal sinkings in recent years, as large numbers continue to board rickety, wooden boats in Indonesia to try and make the treacherous sea crossing to Australia.

The issue is hugely sensitive in Australia, where public anger is growing at the continued influx of boatpeople, and it was a key battleground at the elections.

Abbott's policies, which also include a plan to buy boats off Indonesian fishermen to stop them falling into the hands of people smugglers and using Indonesian villagers as informers, helped propel him to power.

But they have already strained the traditionally strong relationship between Indonesia and Australia.

During a meeting with his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop in New York last week, Natalegawa said the measures could put cooperation on asylum-seekers at risk.

The Australian leader decided to visit Indonesia first instead of more traditional Australian allies, such as the United States or Britain.

At the start of the visit he laid a wreath at Kalibata Heroes Cemetery in south Jakarta, where many who died fighting in the Indonesian war of independence against the Dutch are buried.

Abbott, who is accompanied by Bishop on the trip, will address a breakfast meeting of business leader on Tuesday, the second day of the two-day visit.