The Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), held every two years and which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, is supposed to be a venue for increasing cooperation across the Eurasian region and exploring ways to strengthen the global system of agreements that govern everything from trade to civil aviation.
Counter-terrorism efforts had been due to be discussed, but the issue was given renewed urgency by the outrage in Nice, where a truck ploughed into Bastille Day revellers, killing at least 80 in what President Francois Hollande called a “terrorist” attack.
Leaders and representatives of governments from Ireland to Indonesia held a minute’s silence for the victims at the opening of the summit in Ulan Bator.
“It’s a tragic paradox that the subject of this attack were people celebrating liberty, equality and fraternity,” said European Council President Donald Tusk.
“Today we all, Europe and Asia, stand united with the French people and their government. We condemn this tragedy and keep up our fight against extreme violence and hatred.”
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that “cowardly terrorism engulfing innocent people is unforgivable”, according to Jiji Press, and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was also among those who expressed his sympathy for the victims.
The gathering is the first major international conference since the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague ruled that Beijing’s claims to much of the strategically vital South China Sea have no legal foundation.
The Asian giant, which boycotted the hearings, says the tribunal has no jurisdiction, and has poured scorn on the verdict. It says the subject should not be brought up at ASEM.
But in an oblique reference to the controversy, leaders spoke of the importance of respecting the global legal frameworks that undergird cooperation on terrorism, among other issues.
“Dialogue and a strong commitment to the rules based international order are necessary,” said Tusk.
The Philippines, which brought the case, has said it plans to raise the issue during the summit.
Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay will discuss Manila’s “peaceful and rules-based approach” to the dispute and “the need for parties to respect the recent decision” during the meeting, his office said.
Vietnam, whose own South China Sea dispute with Beijing may also benefit from the PCA ruling, will also talk about “all kinds of issues” at the summit, its foreign minister Pham Binh Minh said.
“We welcome the arbitration award,” he told AFP Thursday as dignitaries gathered in Ulan Bator.
Japan is embroiled in a separate territorial dispute with Beijing and Abe was due to meet the Philippines’ Yasay in the afternoon.
The criticism comes as Beijing, a veto-wielding permanent member of the UN Security Council, seeks a greater presence on the global diplomatic stage.
It hopes to use the ASEM summit as an opportunity to showcase its global initiatives, such as the One Belt, One Road programme, an ambitious plan to build infrastructure projects across the Eurasian region.
At a briefing this week, Chinese assistant foreign minister Kong Xuanyou said that ASEM was “not an appropriate venue” to discuss the South China Sea issue.
China has sought to assert its claims in the region by building a network of artificial islands capable of supporting military operations, and this week reiterated its right to declare an Air Defence Identification Zone in the area, which would demand civilian flights submit to the authority of its military.
Other issues likely to come up at ASEM include international trade and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, but London does not have ministerial representation at the meeting following a cabinet reshuffle that made Brexit campaign leader Boris Johnson its new foreign secretary.