Northeast Asia’s Home Fires Burning

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.

The shift in the country’s economic model would be difficult in the best of circumstances. But it is being undertaken simultaneously with the deepest political purge China has experienced since the days of Mao Zedong, with Xi targeting corrupt officials high and low. At the moment, the focus seems to be on People’s Liberation Army officers and those tied to now-imprisoned former Chongqing Communist Party boss Bo Xilai and the former Politburo security chief Zhou Yongkang, who is awaiting sentencing. Indeed, the most perilous phase of Xi’s purge may now be underway, given the recent arrest of the deputy commander of the Sichuan Military District – a key post, given the district’s large and restive Tibetan population.