Asia-Pacific Forum to Play New Diplomatic Role in Regional Conflicts

The Asia-Pacific region's main security forum says it will strengthen its contribution to global security and begin working diplomatically to prevent conflicts in the region. The ASEAN Regional Forum made the announcement on the final day of a week-long series of ministers' meetings in Laos.

The ASEAN Regional Forum said it would strengthen efforts to combat terrorism and transnational crime, and it pledged to move toward a new role of diplomatic intervention to head off regional conflicts.

But the chairman, Lao Foreign Minister Somsavat Lengsavad, said the transition would be measured. "We need to move gradually at the comfort level [of] all the participants," he said.

Traditionally, the Forum - which groups the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, with 15 other nations of the Asia and the Pacific regions - has limited its roles to dialogue and confidence building.

But the head of the United States delegation, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, said countries should examine ways to take direct action to address regional problems. "There's a rich universe of areas in which we can expand the cooperation to trying to prevent problems, but also to act on problems," he said.

He gave as examples the joint humanitarian effort following December's devastating Indian Ocean tsunami. Other examples include joint efforts to contain epidemics like last year's avian flu outbreak, reduce sea piracy and combat international terrorism.

Earlier, six nations that together produce more than one-half of the world's pollution announced a partnership to develop and disseminate clean energy technologies, aimed at reducing global warming without hurting economic growth in developing nations.

The gathering avoided disruption early in the week when Burma announced it would voluntarily relinquish its turn as chairman of ASEAN next year. The United States and European Union said they would boycott ASEAN if Burma became chairman, because of Rangoon's poor human rights record.

Deputy Secretary Zoellick welcomed the fact that ASEAN had resolved the issue. "I'm pleased that we'll be able to participate fully with the ASEAN processes," he said. "It doesn't change our basic position in terms of Burma."

He said the situation in Burma had deteriorated instead of getting better, and urged Rangoon to make progress toward democracy.