The Malaysian hosts hope the two-day summit of the Association of South East Nations (Asean), beginning on Monday, will break ground on a range of pressing issues facing the region, including the bird flu threat, the annual haze hazard, terrorism and closer economic integration.

 

But once again diplomatic spats and perennial bugbears distracted from the main order of business as economic and foreign ministers thrashed out the agenda for their leaders' summit.

 

China announced it was pulling out of three-way ministerial talks with Japan and South Korea over Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's repeated visits to a Tokyo shrine that features war criminals among those honoured at the site. The talks were scheduled for Friday.

 

"The leader of a certain country is still worshipping war criminals. Surely, this is wrong"

Li Zhaozing,
Chinese foreign minister

The visits have stirred anger in China and South Korea - both of which were occupied by Japanese forces - and Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaozing blamed Koizumi for Beijing's withdrawal from the ministerial talks.

 

"The leader of a certain country is still worshipping war criminals. Surely, this is wrong," Li told reporters.

  

"For an important leader of an important country to be so arrogantly and blatantly hurting the feelings of the people of other Asian countries, what sort of behaviour is this?" he said. "Can one accept this? Nobody can."

 

A Japanese official confirmed that the three-way talks, a regular feature of the annual "Asean-plus-three" meetings, would not take place this year.

 

"There's no way we can hold it without China," the official said.

 

Myanmar reforms

 

Myanmar is often criticised for
the slow pace of reform

Ministers meanwhile took Myanmar to task over the glacial pace of promised reforms, saying that the military government which runs the country would have to show more progress if it wanted the region's support.

 

"We discussed the question of Myanmar, of the need for Myanmar to be more responsive to the wishes of the international community, and I think this has been clearly stated," Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said.

 

"There must be some tangible movement, even if it is an internal affair of Myanmar," he said.

 

"We have discussed Myanmar in a very frank manner," Indonesian Foreign Minister Hasan Wirayuda said.

 

Asean groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, while the plus-three format brings in China, Japan and South Korea.

 

New economic block

 

Their leaders' meeting on Monday and Tuesday will be followed by the first-ever East Asian summit, which also includes Australia, India and New Zealand to form a new 16-nation bloc.

 

Asean has evolved a common
strategy to fight bird flu

Taken together, the countries account for about half of the world's population, and there has been wide speculation about the potential power of the region if it reaches an eventual deal on economic integration.

 

But analysts say such an accord is still years if not decades away.

 

Underlining the difficulties, Asean and South Korea hit a snag over a proposed free-trade deal to do away with tariffs when Thailand baulked at Seoul's demand to keep the tariffs on rice to protect its farmers.

 

Thailand is the world's biggest rice exporter, and said it would not go along with the deal - which would do away with 80% of tariffs for Asean's most-developed nations by 2009 - if Seoul protected its farmers.

 

Asean and South Korea were scheduled to sign a deal later in the day, but talks were still going on, and trade ministers declined to confirm whether the problems had been resolved.

 

An East Asian official said the Asean bloc had reached agreement to unveil a strategy to fight bird flu next week, but that the other six nations were still considering it.

 

The agreement would "set up mechanisms to stockpile and ensure access to vaccine and anti-viral drugs," the official said, and "establish a regional preparedness strategy to contain avian flu outbreaks".