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Rice confronts new crises at Southeast Asian meeting

Rice, who caused dismay in the Asian region last year by skipping the regional meeting and sending her deputy, meets ASEAN ministers in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday and joins the broader ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) the next day with counterparts from key players including China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.
by Staff Writers
Rome (AFP) Jul 26, 2006
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Thursday meets with southeast Asian leaders confronting a crisis over missile tests by North Korea, which has labelled her a "political imbecile".

After resisting pressure to demand an instant ceasefire in the Middle East at a conference in Rome, Rice headed to another daunting meeting at a top regional security forum in Kuala Lumpur.

The US Secretary of State will face renewed pressure on the Middle East in Asia even as she canvasses support for US positions on North Korea, Myanmar and Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Foreign ministers from China, Japan, South Korea and the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc Wednesday promised to raise with Rice their dismay at Israel's "apparently deliberate targeting" of a UN post in Lebanon.

The air raid in southern Lebanon, which Israel has vowed to investigate, killed four UN observers including one from China.

Rice, who caused dismay in the Asian region last year by skipping the regional meeting and sending her deputy, meets ASEAN ministers in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday and joins the broader ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) the next day with counterparts from key players including China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.

North Korea, whose official media Monday described Rice as a "political imbecile" for criticising seven missile tests that Pyongyang conducted on July 5, is set to dominate the security talks.

China and South Korea said Tuesday they were pushing at the forum to restart six-nation talks on dismantling the North's nuclear program.

Despite doubts that Pyongyang would agree, China said Tuesday that informal discussions had been scheduled on the sidelines of the forum for Friday.

The discussions would tentatively involve all six nations -- the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States -- party to the three-year-old disarmament talks that the North boycotted in November in protest over US sanctions.

South Korea confirmed the initiative but said it was not sure North Korea was interested. North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam-Sun is due to arrive in the Malaysian capital on Thursday.

The United States and South Korea have shown interest in holding five-way talks if the North refused to join, but China has warned this would only lead to greater difficulty in engaging Pyongyang.

Rice hopes to "further the international response to North Korea's missile launches and pursuit of nuclear weapons (and) Iran's nuclear programs," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack last week.

She also wants Asian allies to tackle the "lack of progress toward real democracy and national reconciliation in Burma (Myanmar)," he said.

However ASEAN foreign ministers on Tuesday released a watered-down version of a statement on Myanmar which did not mention detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The statement said the ministers "expressed concern on the pace of the national reconciliation process" in Myanmar and called for "tangible progress" towards democracy in the country.

Even in the heat of a blistering tour of world crises, which began in bomb-shaken Beirut, Rice looked set to get a short musical interlude.

Diplomats and reports said Rice, an accomplished pianist, would perform a piano recital at the annual gala of the security meeting.

Following her visit to Malaysia, Rice is due in Vietnam.

burs/djw/gk/tha/cc

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