KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 10: China Saturday put more pressure on Japan as an emotional dispute over Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's war shrine visits cast a shadow over an upcoming summit of Asian leaders, report agencies.
With the region trying to address issues ranging from free trade to bird flu at the summit on Monday and Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing again lashed out at Koizumi's controversial visits to a Tokyo war shrine.
China has already cancelled the customary three-way meeting with the leaders of Japan and South Korea at the ASEAN summit and pulled out of a scheduled meeting of their foreign ministers.
Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni shrine, which memorialises top war criminals among the honoured war dead, have strained ties with nations that Japan invaded in the 20th century and which see it as a symbol of militarism.
Seoul has also harshly criticised the visits but South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon met his Japanese counterpart Taro Aso here on Saturday as ASEAN diplomacy moved into high gear.
ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, while the so-called "plus-three" format brings in China, Japan and South Korea.
The ASEAN summit and plus-three gathering Monday and Tuesday will be followed by the first-ever East Asia Summit, which also includes Australia, India and New Zealand to form a new 16-nation bloc. Russia has been invited as a guest.
Discussions are expected to try to tackle a wide range of issues from pollution haze to the threat of bird flu, as well as hopes of creating an eventual free-trade zone that would cover half the world's population.
Russia moved closer to winning full membership in the new grouping Saturday, signing an economic cooperation accord expected to deepen its ties with Southeast Asia -- a prerequisite for joining.
After meeting his counterparts here, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov voiced satisfaction with the agreement.
"The economic declaration signed today is developing our legal basis for cooperation further," he told reporters.
Russia will attend the East Asia Summit Wednesday as a guest after being refused full membership due to a split within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) over its membership.
But Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said there was now a mood within the grouping to have Russia included at some point in the future.
Australia also signed a key document at Saturday's meetings as Foreign Minister Alexander Downer put his name to a regional non-aggression pact -- a move needed to become a part of the East Asia Summit.
The Australian government of Prime Minister John Howard had opposed signing the accord, fearing it could undermine the "war on terror," but Downer signed the deal to ensure Australia would have a voice in the summit.
Downer dismissed as "puerile" recent comments by Malaysia's former premier Mahathir Mohamad that it would act as a deputy sheriff for America in the grouping.
Downer was highly critical of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, which also came in for heavy criticism from ASEAN nations here on Friday over its unmet pledges on democracy and human rights.