Asia's annual security summit opened in somber mood yesterday, overshadowed by the plight of 21 South Korean hostages threatened with execution by their Taliban captors in Afghanistan.
With nearly 30 countries sitting down in Manila to address an array of threats from global warming to the spread of the atom bomb, ministers began with an urgent appeal for the captives, all Christian aid workers, to be freed.
"We all wish that the remaining 21 hostages be returned to their families as soon as possible," said Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo of the Philippines, the host of this year's ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), in the opening ceremony.
"We hope for your continued support for the early and safe resolution of this crisis," replied South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon, visibly grateful for the tribute.
After the doors closed to the media, officials from the US, Europe and across Asia discussed a range of international security concerns including the North Korean nuclear program.
The top US negotiator on the issue, Christopher Hill, met North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui-chun late on Wednesday, as both sides pledged to work hard to complete a six-nation agreement to disarm the North's nuclear programs.
"My comments were that we had to get this done and he agreed," Hill told reporters. "Things are finally falling into place. We have a lot to get done."
China, which hosts the six-nation talks, used its speech to the meeting to criticize what it called a "Cold War mentality" aimed at counter-balancing its growing military might.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi (
"Under the influence of the Cold War mentality, there is a trend towards building up bilateral military alliances to gain absolute military superiority," he said, according to a copy of his speech.
"This undermines political mutual trust, causes uncertainty to regional security and has become a source of concern to people," Yang said.
The US, represented this year by its number two diplomat John Negroponte as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice could not attend, has expressed concern about China's rapid rise.
But Negroponte -- who on Wednesday pledged US commitment to the region, even though Rice was skipping the security meeting for the second time in three years -- was "a bit low-key" at the gathering, a diplomat said.
Thousands of Philippine police were deployed in the streets of Manila to seal off the summit venue, where delegates arrived by motorcade wearing traditional hand-woven Philippine shirts in line with an ASEAN summit custom.
ASEAN each year caps the week of talks with the ARF, which brings the 10 member nations together with 17 others including Russia, China, India, Pakistan, the US and the EU.
A blizzard of meetings surrounds the ARF summit itself, a closed-door affair that normally lasts no more than three hours.
Foreign ministers were set this year to tackle a number of matters including bird flu, climate change, nuclear proliferation and other issues related to terrorism.
Diplomats who had been inside the meeting said the hostages in Afghanistan -- just about the only issue on the agenda not decided on long beforehand -- had been prominent in the discussions.