JAKARTA, INDONESIA, JULY 24 -- The Bush administration's Indochina policy is coming under sharp criticism here, with Southeast Asian foreign ministers questioning the wisdom of Washington's new policy shift on Cambodia and attacking the U.S. position on Vietnamese boat people.

The criticisms appeared to mark the most serious dispute in years between the United States and its allies in the six-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, known as ASEAN. The ASEAN officials' anger and frustration over U.S. policy were made known here in two official statements and in informal remarks by ASEAN officials.

The tone of the foreign ministers' meeting so far appeared to presage a stormy session when Secretary of State James A. Baker III arrives for meetings with his Southeast Asian counterparts Thursday and Friday

The ASEAN meeting is taking place amid a new mood of pessimism over the prospects for peace in Cambodia. Various efforts to forge a political solution have failed, and recent battlefield successes by Khmer Rouge guerrillas have raised concerns that the radical Communist faction could eventually seize power in Phnom Penh.

"If the present impasse continues, efforts at finding a peaceful solution may be in danger of losing momentum," said Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas. "I am also concerned to observe that all parties directly involved appear to have hardened their position."

Baker announced in Paris last week that the United States was withdrawing its recognition of the three-party Cambodian guerrilla coalition, which includes the Khmer Rouge, and would open a dialogue with Vietnam on how to settle the Cambodian war.

Baker said the shift was aimed at preventing a return to power by the Khmer Rouge, who ruled Cambodia from 1975 until they were driven out of Phnom Penh in January 1979 by invading Vietnamese troops and who are held responsible for the deaths of more than 1 million Cambodians. After Vietnam ousted the Khmer Rouge, it installed a friendly government in Phnom Penh, now headed by Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Baker said the administration intended to stop voting at the United Nations in favor of the guerrilla coalition, breaking an 11-year-old policy held to by three successive administrations.

{In Bangkok, the Khmer Rouge was reported to have appealed to the Southeast Asian countries to continue their support of the rebels until a U.N.-brokered settlement could be reached in the Cambodian civil war, the Reuter news agency reported.

{The group made its appeal in a radio broadcast that marked its first public statement since the U.S. policy shift. The statement did not directly mention the new American policy.}

In a statement released here late Monday, the six ASEAN foreign ministers -- from Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines -- said that Cambodia's seat at the United Nations "is a delicate political question" and that any attempt now to change the seat "would set back the search for a comprehensive political solution to the Cambodian problem."

The statement, ASEAN's first formal response to the new Washington initiative on Cambodia, did not mention the United States by name, and ASEAN officials and Western diplomatic analysts said the mild tone of the document appeared to reflect divisions over how best to respond to the U.S. shift.

In their individual comments, however, the ASEAN officials were far more critical of the U.S. policy shift, some referring to it as a "typical" case of the United States undercutting its allies to appease domestic public opinion. "There's a growing feeling in ASEAN that you just can't rely on consistency in United States policy," said an Indonesian official.

Singapore Foreign Minister Wong Kan Seng said Baker's announcement "was seen to be unhelpful to ASEAN's process for searching for peace in Cambodia." He said he could not understand how asking the resistance coalition to vacate the U.N. seat would prevent the Khmer Rouge from returning to power. He said the U.S. move may isolate the Khmer Rouge instead and force them to harden their position.

"The only way to deal with the Khmer Rouge is to draw them into the negotiating process," he said. "This is not a comfortable fact to live with, but it is a fact of Realpolitik nevertheless."

The ASEAN countries were less muted in their criticism of the Bush administration's policy on Vietnamese boat people.

The Asians have complained that they are tired of taking in thousands of new boat people each month, most of whom are unlikely to qualify for resettlement in the West. The Asians would like to screen out Vietnamese fleeing persecution from those who are only seeking a better life abroad. That latter group, called "economic migrants," would be sent back to Vietnam, by force if necessary.

The Bush administration is opposed to the forced return of any Vietnamese asylum seeker until there are "dramatic political, social and economic changes in Vietnam," according to one U.S. official.

Washington's only ally in its opposition to forced repatriation is Vietnam, and both countries today came under sharp criticism in an unusually tough ASEAN statement.

Saying that the "unrelenting influx" of boat people has become "intolerable," the six ASEAN countries said they "deeply regretted that Vietnam and the United States, in opposing involuntary repatriation, have refused to provide for effective intermediate solutions."

In the absence of a compromise, the foreign ministers reiterated their right to prevent more boat people from coming -- possibly including pushing refugee boats back out to sea. Malaysia already has adopted such a policy, and Thailand is seen likely to follow.