Southeast Asian nations have failed to mediate a smouldering border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia, which grabbed most of the attention at a meeting of Asia-Pacific powers.
Foreign ministers from the Association of South East Asian Nations met their counterparts from China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand for talks ranging from North Korea nuclear diplomacy to food and energy security.
But with Thailand and Cambodia in a military showdown over an 11th-century temple on their border claimed by both nations, Asean has been distracted geopolitical issues by one of the periodic intramural spats that feeds scepticism about the 41-year-old group's ambitions to become a coherent political and economic bloc.
Asean foreign ministers offered their good offices at a working lunch on Tuesday after Thailand and Cambodia sent hundreds of soldiers and heavy artillery to their border in recent days.
Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo, host for this year's Asean ministerial meeting, said both sides "reiterated they were committed to a peaceful resolution of the issue", and another meeting of their General Border Commission to discuss the issue "would be held in the near future."
But no consensus could be reached for Asean to get involved, Yeo said in a statement.
Thailand would prefer trying to settle the issue bilaterally before asking Asean's help, a Thai official told reporters after the lunch.
Singapore's foreign ministry spokesman Andrew Tan said the two sides would likely meet again after Cambodia's general election on Sunday, outside the "intense media glare" and political pressures that are fueling emotions. "You need to give them some space to manage this issue."
The dispute is testing Asean's unity while it is in the midst of ratifying a charter that would turn the 41-year-old grouping into an EU-style, rules-based organisation.
"The border engagement is not only relevant in terms of the problem that we see between the two states, but also it could be a test to Asean," said Malaysian Foreign Minister Rais Yatim.
The fracas did manage to shove Myanmar out of the spotlight it usually occupies with great uneasiness at Asean meetings.
The meetings began with a rare ray of optimism on Sunday from the country's junta, which seemed to indicate detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi could be freed in about six months.
But Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Win soon dashed such hopes saying his remarks had been misunderstood and Suu Kyi would stay in detention until at least May of 2009.
That clarification came as Asean urged Myanmar to "take bolder steps" towards a peaceful transition to democracy and to release all political detainees, including Suu Kyi.
That was the first time Asean had ever specifically mentioned Suu Kyi in one of its communiques, diplomats said.
At the broader meeting of East Asian ministers on Tuesday, discussion focused on energy and food security.
"Many expressed the concern that the two were linked," the Singapore foreign ministry spokesman said.
The ministers also recognised that efforts to boost biofuels had to be done responsibly and not at the expense of food security, he said.
That marked a subtle but significant shift from 18 months ago, when Asean – whose member nations are big producers of palm oil and sugar cane – was backing a move into biofuels, which can use those commodities as feed stock.
North Korean nuclear diplomacy will take centre stage on Wednesday when US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meets North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun along with the foreign ministers from China, Japan, South Korea and Russia – who together make up the "six party" nuclear talks.
"It's very significant because this is probably the first time the foreign ministers from the six parties are having such a meeting," China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told reporters after talks with his Japanese counterpart.
"I think it will be beneficial to pushing forward the progress of the six-party talks."