Northeast Asia’s Home Fires Burning

When the leaders of China, Japan, and South Korea convene in Beijing next month at the APEC summit, there is reason to hope not only for formal handshakes and bilateral meetings, but also for substantive efforts to lower tensions in the region. That hope is built on all three leaders’ need to address difficult domestic challenges.

TOKYO – Successful diplomatic summits are almost always pre-cooked affairs, with every aspect of the meeting, from the initial handshakes to the final communiqué, minutely choreographed. But next month’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing looks like a high-risk enterprise. It is not even clear whether Chinese President Xi Jinping will agree to meet with one of his most important guests, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. It is also unclear whether Abe will be able to meet with South Korean President Park Geun-hye.

And yet there is considerable reason to hope not only for formal handshakes and bilateral meetings among Northeast Asia’s “Big Three” leaders, but also for substantive discussions aimed at lowering tensions in the region. That hope is built on all three leaders’ need for a period of diplomatic quiet, owing to the difficult domestic challenges that each now faces.

Xi may be confronting the most difficult domestic agenda: an effort to engineer a relatively smooth transition from an economic structure based on manufacturing and exports to one in which domestic consumption and services fuel growth. Not only has structural transformation caused the economy to slow; it has also exposed deep flaws in China’s financial system.

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