SOUTH-EAST Asia's top diplomat has rejected as ''counterproductive'' Tony Abbott's policy to tow back asylum seeker boats to Indonesia, warning the plan could jeopardise Australia's ties to the neighbourhood.
And the chief of the 10-nation group that covers south-east Asia, Surin Pitsuwan, has cast doubt on the intentions of an Abbott government to actually carry out its threat to force asylum seekers to return to Indonesia.
''It will be counterproductive,'' he told the Herald. ''Just to impose certain decisions on the neighbours at the risk of losing many other agendas, many other issues on the international agenda.
''I don't think it's worth it.''
In what is the sharpest critique to date from a senior regional figure of Mr Abbott's boat tow-back policy, Dr Surin said countries understood the Opposition Leader was primarily targeting an audience at home.
Dr Surin is the secretary general of the Association of South East Asian Nations, a group of 10 nations that includes Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, all grappling with the explosion of asylum seekers transiting through their territory on their way to Australia.
''Rhetoric, political rhetoric, you have to take [Abbott's comments] as such,'' he said.
''I think south-east Asia or ASEAN is really mature enough to appreciate that some of them are internal rhetoric for internal consumption, for internal political communication.''
It is the sharpest critique to date from the region about Mr Abbott's controversial proposal, saying Australia did not have a record of pushing problems back on south-east Asia.
He said only a regional approach - not ''by divorcing, by turning your back to us'' - could solve the challenge of people smugglers and other cross-border crimes, such as drug trafficking.
Dr Surin said: ''You will have to think about others. A lot of this cannot be resolved by one party alone.''
Mr Abbott scored a rare diplomatic coup last week, meeting with the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, in Jakarta.
But government ministers seized on Indonesian comments that Mr Abbott did not directly raise the tow back policy with Mr Yudhoyono, accusing the Opposition Leader of talking tough at home but lacking guts while abroad.
Dr Surin, a former foreign minister of Thailand, is coming to the end of a five-year term as ASEAN secretary general.
He said the region's ties with Australia had grown stronger, and Australia could now much more comfortably claim to be an Asian nation than it could in the 1970s.
''Australia came from a background of being rather distant and divorced from east Asia, from Asia in general. The perception earlier on before ASEAN or before your engagement with ASEAN was that it is a European country that happens to be in the East, and orientation, sentiments, emotional attachments always have gone to the West. But things have changed,'' he said.
''There was a need and Australia has done very well, there was a need to integrate the sentiments, the emotions and the priorities of the region.''
He praised Australia's efforts for engaging with what he described as ''architecture'' - the diplomatic institutions in the region - and helping countries work together to tackle problems.