Leaders stand for a minute of silence for the victims of a deadly attack in the French city of Nice, before the opening session of the 11th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Summit in the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator on July 15, 2016 (Photo: AFP)
Leaders of Asia and Europe condemned international terrorism at a summit in Mongolia Friday, as an attack in Nice drew attention away from Beijing's rejection of a tribunal ruling dismissing its extensive South China Sea claims.
The biennial Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, is supposed to be a venue for increasing cooperation across the Eurasian region and exploring ways to strengthen global agreements governing everything from trade to civil aviation.
Counter-terrorism efforts were already due to be discussed, but the issue was given renewed urgency by the carnage in Nice, where a truck ploughed into Bastille Day revellers, killing at least 84 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.
In a statement they condemned "heinous and cowardly terrorist attacks" and pledged to fight "the plague of terrorism".
European Council President Donald Tusk said: "It's a tragic paradox that the subject of this attack were people celebrating liberty, equality and fraternity."
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that "despicable terrorism engulfing innocent people can never be forgiven", and German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters that "we are all united in shock".
France's foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault cut short his visit and prepared to return to Paris, thanking the dignitaries for their "spontaneous and sincere solidarity towards the French people".
"The whole world shares France's ordeal," he told AFP.
The gathering was the first major international conference since the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague ruled, in a case brought by the Philippines, 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.
But participants defied its demands that the subject should not be brought up at ASEM, crticicising Beijing by emphasising 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 during the opening ceremony.
Manila has pledged not to "taunt or flaunt" the verdict, but its foreign minister Perfecto Yasay told the summit it "strongly affirms its respect for this milestone decision", calling for "all parties to exercise restraint and sobriety".
Tokyo is embroiled in a territorial dispute of its own with Beijing, and in remarks to reporters Abe brought up the South China Sea in the same breath as terrorism and North Korea as an issue of international concern.
Earlier he met Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on the summit sidelines, but did not give details about their discussion.
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 hoped to use the ASEM summit -- official theme "Partnership for the Future through Connectivity" -- 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.
China has sought to assert its claims in the South China Sea 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 on the agenda at ASEM included Britain's vote to leave the European Union.
Following his meeting with Abe, the EU's Tusk sought to reassure Asian countries over the grouping's future, saying that "the European Union remains an engaged and active global player".
"We will continue to do so as an EU of 27 states, once the UK leaves," he added. "There is no shift in our foreign policy."