By Bill Tarrant
SINGAPORE (The Star-Reuters) - Asia-Pacific nations began annual talks on Thursday about threats to the region's security and prosperity, ranging from global financial turmoil and disaster preparedness to border spats and nuclear diplomacy.
The ASEAN Regional Forum brings together the 10 members of the Association of South East Asian Nations with Asia-Pacific powers, including the United States, Japan, China, India, Russia and Australia.
The forum, which has ambitions ultimately of evolving beyond a "talk-shop", is expected to give a big round of applause to six of its participants, who had what was described as "a good meeting" on Wednesday on North Korea nuclear disarmament.
"What we're excited about (is) because security there means security for the East Asian region, and it means security for us as well," New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters told reporters during a break in the forum.
"That's just one less perilous risk that the world will have to take in the future," Peters said, adding that North Korea stands to "get enormous assistance internationally, including New Zealand assistance, to head down that new path."
The first meeting of foreign ministers from the six nations, including U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, showed a "political will" to move the disarmament process forward, China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said after the meeting on Wednesday.
Rice -- the first U.S. foreign minister to sit down with the North Koreans since 2004 -- said she urged Pyongyang to quickly agree to the so-called verification protocol circulated earlier this month among the six parties.
"I don't think the North Koreans left with any illusions about the fact that the ball is in their court and that everybody believes they have got to respond and respond positively on verification," Rice told reporters on Thursday.
Food and energy security is also on the agenda at the forum. Spiralling food and energy prices have unsettled many countries in Asia, many of whom have been forced to take the politically unpopular route of slashing fuel subsidies.
Central banks in the region are feverishly intervening in foreign exchange markets to prop up their currencies as a defence against imported inflation at a time when their exports to the west are declining due to sluggish growth, if not outright recession, in those markets.
Rice exporters Vietnam and India have slapped export curbs on Asia's main food staple, and some have expressed fears of a new mutation of the 1997/98 "Asian Contagion" financial crisis.
In bilateral meetings so far this week, ASEAN agreed to work with China to enhance rice yields, and plans a "Green Fund" with India to promote climate change adaptation and mitigation.
Countries are also discussing ways to improve transport in the region by liberalising air routes and increasing road links, with a proposal for a India-Myanmar-Thailand highway.
Cooperation on health pandemics and natural disasters is also on the agenda. Japan said it would improve the capacity to react to pandemics by stockpiling an extra half a million doses of anti-viral medication in each ASEAN country.
Ministers were also discussing a plan to hold military-led disaster relief exercises in the Philippines next year. Officials states need to test how they might help each other in disasters such as the recent Myanmar cyclone and the China quake.
The forum is also expected to endorse ASEAN's efforts to settle a border fracas between two of its members, Thailand and Cambodia. Cambodia earlier this week submitted a letter to the U.N. Security Council asking it to convene an urgent meeting to help resolve its military standoff with Thailand on their border.
The council is expected to meet on Monday.
The forum is also expected to back ASEAN's call on Myanmar to free all political prisoners, including Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and adopt democratic reforms.
"We're not here because it's a talk-shop," Peters said. "We're here because (ARF's) got a serious purpose and a whole range of issues, whether it's transnational crime, terrorism, maritime security ... and we've got some responsible things to do in the interest of the people's security in the individual countries in the region," the New Zealand foreign minister said.
(Additional reporting by Neil Chatterjee, Manny Mogato and Melanie Lee)