Asean Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan has labelled "counterproductive" the Australian opposition party's controversial policy to turn back asylum-seeker boats, a report said yesterday.
As part of his plan to tackle the growing problem, opposition leader Tony Abbott has said he would instruct the navy to tow back the boats, which mostly travel from Indonesia, if he wins power in the elections due next year.
Southeast Asia's top diplomat said he believed much of what Abbott said was rhetoric for a domestic audience, but warned Australia's ties with the region could be hurt if he followed through with his threat.
Surin, who heads the 10-nation grouping, told the Sydney Morning Herald: "It will be counterproductive 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."
Asylum seekers arriving by boat are a contentious issue in Australia, where many consider those who bypass official refugee channels to make the dangerous journey as "queue jumpers".
More than 12,000 have arrived so far this year, with the ruling Labour government now sending them to offshore processing camps in the Pacific nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea as a deterrent.
Surin said the issue could be resolved only by a regional approach and not "by divorcing, by turning your back to us".
Abbott has yet to outline the details of how his tow-back policy would work in practice, but insists his plan will undermine people-smugglers' business model and deter more asylum seekers from attempting the dangerous voyage.