The process of choosing a successor to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is in full swing, with the early debate focusing on whether the next U.N. diplomat-in-chief should come from Asia or Eastern Europe. There is a move to pick the next secretary-general well in advance of the end of Mr. Annan's term.

Kofi Annan's second term as U.N. secretary-general is set to end next December 31. But already the contest to succeed him is heating up.

In a recent conversation with reporters, Washington's U.N. Ambassador John Bolton suggested the United States is hoping to accelerate the process.

"The focus for us beginning now is the selection of the next secretary-general, and the current secretary-general will serve out his term, I don't think there's any question about that, at least in our minds, but I think our focus now has to be to pick a successor, and we have suggested for example that we might consider having the election in the middle of year, not waiting till the end of the year," he said. "But having it during June, July, something like that"

A few candidates have already stepped forward. Among the front-runners are Thailand's deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai and Sri Lankan peace negotiator Jayantha Dhanapala.

Both are being given close scrutiny, not least because they are Asians, and by tradition, the top U.N. job rotates among regions. According to that tradition, it is Asia's turn.

Only one Asian has held the top U.N. job. That was Oo Thant of Burma, whose term ended in 1971. Secretary-General Annan recently said there is a strong feeling among the U.N. membership that the job should go to an Asian.

"But as you look back historically, we have established a pattern of rotation," said Kofi Annan. "Most member states that I have talked to feel it is Asia's turn."

Another African diplomat, the current Security Council President Augustine Mahiga of Tanzania, says African and Asian leaders meeting in Jakarta last year agreed that what he calls the "rotation principle" should be followed.

"?and the rotation this time is for Asia," he said. "We think Asia with 54 countries, more than Africa, and with very resourceful persons and certainly the most populous continent in the world, should have a chance to provide the secretary-general.

There is little democratic about the way the secretary-general is chosen. Former long-time undersecretary general Brian Urquhart once described the selection as the "most labyrinthine process imaginable, shrouded in big power secrecy".

In effect, the choice is made in closed-door consultations by the five permanent members of the Security Council - Britain, France, the United States, Russia and China. The name of a single candidate is then submitted to the General Assembly for approval.

And while China and Russia have indicated a preference for an Asian candidate, the United States and Britain have suggested the search should be wider, perhaps to Eastern Europe.

Spokesman Richard Grennell of the U.S. mission to the U.N. says the emphasis should be on finding a good manager and reformer, regardless of geography.

"Our goal is to make sure the next secretary-general has a very strong presence at the U.N., that the next secretary-general cares about U.N. reform, makes as a priority U.N. reform, a better budget process at the U.N., greater ethics accountability at the U.N., a stronger human rights commission at the U.N," he said. "All of these issues are very important to us, and we are very interested in making sure that the next secretary-general and his or her team have U.N. reform as a priority."

Spokesman Grennell says the United States favors early selection of a new secretary-general to allow for an overlap period, during which Mr. Annan could brief his successor. Other diplomats note, however, that this would constitute a sharp departure from previous practice, and would emphasize Mr. Annan's lame duck status.

The U.S. spokesman would not discuss the names of possible candidates, but several diplomats and U.N. officials say others being considered include men and women from Eastern Europe. Among them are former Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski and Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga.

The Latvian president's name has drawn increasing interest at a time when women's groups are actively lobbying for a woman secretary-general.

The top U.N. job has in the past been held by three western Europeans, two Africans, one Latin American and one Asian, but never by an Eastern European or a woman.