Candidates from South Korea and India have emerged as the early frontrunners in the race to succeed Kofi Annan as secretary-general of the United Nations.

Diplomats were unusually tight-lipped as they emerged from Monday's informal vote, or 'straw poll'. China's U.N. Ambassador Wang Guangya would only reiterate his country's longstanding position that, according to tradition, it is Asia's turn to hold the secretary-general's job. "I believe all four candidates are experienced diplomats. At least one from Asia will be chosen," he said.

On the ballot were the names of four men, all from Asia: South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon, Sri Lankan presidential adviser Jayantha Dhanapala, the Indian author and head of the U.N. Public Information department Shashi Tharoor, and the Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai.

Diplomats who asked not to be identified because of the secret nature of the vote say South Korean minister Ban scored highest in the balloting, with 12 positive votes and one negative vote, followed by India's Shashi Tharoor, with 10 positive and two negative votes. The other two hopefuls were far back.

Diplomats cautioned not to read too much into the results, since a country can nominate a candidate at any time. French mission to the U.N. spokesman Axel Cruau said more candidates are expected, and welcome. "There's a general feeling that four candidates is not enough. Well, it's better if you have many more candidates because you can make better choices," he said.

Cruau said many ambassadors are hoping the process of selecting a new secretary-general can be completed well before Secretary-General Kofi Annan's second five-year term runs out at the end of December. "We're have always said we are looking for an end of September, beginning of October, roughly around that time, but we'll se if we need more time, the Council will take more time," he said.

Cruau said France gives priority to Asian candidates, but not exclusivity. U.S. Ambassador John Bolton agrees. "What we want is the best person from wherever in the world they might come, and now it's up to candidates from Asia or other regions to make a decisIon to have a member government put their name forward," he said.

While the results of this first informal straw poll do give a boost to the South Korean and Indian candidates, diplomats caution that response to all four so far has been, in the words of one, "less than enthusiastic".

Veteran U.N. watchers say they expect several more candidates to emerge in the coming weeks, and add the man or woman who will eventually be named to head the world body has probably not yet emerged.