Asia security forum to push anti-terror efforts

Asia's most prominent and significant security forum agreed to push efforts to fight terrorism, keep the Straits of Malacca piracy-free and fix conflicts by the diplomats.

The forum capped a six-day minister's conference of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that saw Australia shed past reservations and sign a nonaggression pact with its neighbors, joining efforts to build an Asia trade bloc on a par with those in Europe and North America.

The 10-member Southeast Asian bloc joined 15 other Asia-Pacific nations - including East Timor, admitted Friday - for the ASEAN Regional Forum in Laos to discuss terrorism, the situation on the Korean peninsula and the safety of the Straits of Malacca, the world's most pirate-infested waterway.

The ARF agreed on a new doctrine to empower its chairman to convene committees to intervene to head off brewing conflicts. Details were to be worked out later.

"This is the year for a transition from just meeting to build confidence to moving into the arena of preventive diplomacy," Kantathi said.

Despite those ambitions, the gathering in the Laotian capital of Vientiane was marred by the absence of top diplomats from the United States, Japan, China and India, who sent deputies instead.

Ministers at the meetings in Vientiane said they did not believe the no-shows would diminish the forum's profile.

Instead, the officials said the ARF's role was bound to expand, given the lack of any other regional body equipped to help smooth the many points of friction in the region: India-Pakistan, the two Koreas, China-Japan and various other disputes, often involving conflicting claims over islets or waterways.

"It provides an opportunity to frankly address issues that otherwise might not be addressed," said Australia's Foreign Minister Alexander Downer.

The ministers condemned recent terrorist attacks in England and Egypt and endorsing efforts to improve regional maritime security, prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction and combat trafficking in illegal weapons, their draft statement said.

"In order to address terrorism the ministers agreed there is a need to fully address the root causes of terrorism," Laotian Foreign Minister Somsavat Lengsavad said.

"We focused on what is happening on the ground. Associating Islam with terrorism has done a lot of disservice," Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said, adding that countries must ensure they don't become "fertile soil for the nurturing of terrorist activities."

Also in Vientiane, the U.S., Australia, China, India, Japan and South Korea announced a proposal to help control greenhouse emissions by developing cleaner energy technologies. Environmentalists suspected the nonbinding pact could undermine the Kyoto anti-pollution treaty.

Saving the ASEAN bloc from a potentially damaging standoff with Washington, Myanmar agreed this week to forgo its rotating chairmanship of ASEAN in 2006. The U.S. had threatened to boycott ASEAN meetings in the military-ruled country in protest of its human rights record and lack of democratic reforms.

Kantathi, the Thai minister, said the decision will prevent Myanmar from taking up the chairmanship until it restores democracy, and said that "the pressure is not off" the junta to push forward with reforms.

Once democracy is restored, "then we would allow them and welcome them to the chair, to come back and be at the front line," he told the AP.

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