Friday, July 05, 2013

Australia PM in Indonesia for talks on asylum-seeker boats

Australia's newly reinstated Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will hold talks with Indonesia's president Friday, with the politically sensitive subject of asylum-seekers set to top the agenda.

On his first foreign trip since ousting Julia Gillard barely a week ago, he will meet with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to tackle a subject that will be key in upcoming Australian elections.

Despite Canberra's tough new policies banishing asylum-seekers to remote Pacific islands, thousands of would-be refugees continue to make the sea crossing to Australia, often from transit hubs in Indonesia.

Many have died trying to make the perilous journey in crammed, rickety boats, normally after paying huge fees to people-smugglers.

Rudd has already drawn Indonesia into the domestic debate, pouring scorn on opposition leader Tony Abbott and his plan to "turn back" the boats, saying this risked a diplomatic incident with Jakarta.

Although he is under pressure to take a tough stance on the issue, Rudd cautioned against expecting major outcomes from the talks as he arrived in Jakarta late Thursday.

"I think it's quite wrong to have huge expectations that there's going to be some headline result out of what is a regular meeting between the prime minister of Australia and the president of Indonesia," he said.

While the asylum-seeker issue would be discussed, talks would cover "the full breadth of our relationship", he added.

Ahead of Rudd's visit, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa suggested Indonesia alone could not solve the problem, and said a multilateral approach was needed.

"We have been consistent in saying that this problem cannot be solved by one country," he said.

"It needs a joint effort from destination and transit countries, as well as countries of origin."

Rudd, a former foreign minister and ex-diplomat, won a 57-45 leadership ballot of Labor lawmakers, who were fearing crushing defeat at the polls in September.

Analysts say Rudd will use his two-day visit to Indonesia to try and burnish his leadership credentials ahead of the yet-to-be announced election date.

After arriving in Jakarta, Rudd had a brief, informal meeting with Yudhoyono at the presidential palace in the city.

On Friday, the pair will hold formal talks at the presidential palace in Bogor, just outside the capital, in the framework of an annual Indonesian-Australian leaders' meeting.

Given the record influx of arrivals, the Australian government has reportedly asked new Immigration Minister Tony Burke to consider other options, including stricter assessments and how to repatriate those deemed to be economic migrants.-Channel News Asia

Philippines to buy 2 frigates from Italy

The Philippines is set to buy two Maestrale-class frigates from Italy, a defense official said Wednesday, as the Asian nation races to upgrade its military amid mounting territorial disputes with China.

The frigates, along with 12 FA-50 fighter aircraft, are the most significant items on the government's 75-billion-peso ($1.7-billion) military modernization budget over the next five years, Defense Undersecretary Fernando Manalo said.

"We are modernizing not because we want to go to war with China," he told a news conference.

He said the government had a sworn obligation to defend the "West Philippine Sea," using the government's preferred term for Philippine-claimed areas in the South China Sea.

"We are not saying that this is part of our preparations to assert our sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea. What we are saying is that we cannot just give them up."

The frigates would add to two refurbished Hamilton-class cutters formerly used by the US Coast Guard that the Philippines acquired from its US ally to upgrade its ageing navy fleet, which includes some vessels that first saw action in World War II.

Manalo said the navy had already decided to acquire two new Maestrale-class frigates instead of buying used ones from the Italian navy, and had budgeted 18 billion pesos for them.

The Philippines could be ready to tender by the end of the year, he added.

Meanwhile, the government had alloted 18.9 billion pesos to acquire the fighter aircraft, which are built by South Korea, he added.

The modernization budget also provides for building or improving facilities to berth and provide maintenance to the vessels on the military's shopping list, Manalo said.

President Benigno Aquino vowed Monday to rebuild the air force by 2016.

The Philippines, which has one of the weakest military forces in the region, retired the last of its US-designed F-5 fighters in 2005.-ABS-CBN News