Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister Image Credit: Agency

Successful diplomatic summits are almost always pre-cooked affairs, with every aspect of the meeting — from the initial handshakes to the final communique, 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 one of his most important guests, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. It is also unclear whether Abe will be able to meet 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. However, 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.

Abe’s domestic troubles, stemming from two decades of economic stagnation, are well known. Although his economic strategy, known as “Abenomics,” appears to have ended deflation, vibrant growth is nowhere in sight. Moreover, after a series of scandals cost Abe some newly appointed ministers, some fear that he may no longer be willing to follow through on the liberalising structural reforms — the so-called “third arrow” of Abenomics – that sustained economic recovery requires.

Park may appear to face the least vexing domestic conditions, with South Korea’s economy growing at a 3.2 per cent annual pace in the second quarter of 2014, only marginally lower than market forecasts. But Park undoubtedly views her domestic circumstances as anything but rosy; in many ways, this has been an annus horribilis for her and her country.

Indeed, disaster has stalked South Korea this year, beginning in April with the sinking of the ferry Sewol, which claimed some 300 lives, most of them high school students. The trial of the Sewol’s captain, the apparent suicide of its owner and a series of scandals involving beatings and bullying leading to death and suicide among army conscripts have cost Park key ministerial resignations and have created a pervasive sense of unease about how the country is governed.

Complicating matters further is the need for Park to devise a viable response to a new diplomatic charm offensive by North Korea’s usually charmless leader, Kim Jong-un. Park remains, rightly, a sceptic concerning Kim’s motives; but the spectacle of the North’s second-highest-ranking official appearing suddenly at the Asian Games earlier this month created a frisson of excitement that perhaps Kim the Younger may actually want to improve relations.

Faced with these domestic concerns, all three leaders need a respite from the tensions that have bedeviled relations among their countries over the past three years. But, because each has played on these tensions, particularly with Japan, in order to control their domestic opponents, achieving this necessary respite may prove difficult.

And yet there are signs that the three leaders understand that the Apec summit may be a make-or-break moment for their countries’ relations. Much of the worst anti-Japanese bombast has disappeared from Chinese television in recent weeks and former Japanese prime minister Yasuo Fukuda is due to meet with Xi in Beijing this week. This does not yet add up to a thaw in the bilateral relationship, but it does suggest that Xi may be seeking a respite, at least until China’s economy is on a more stable footing and his anti-corruption campaign begins to wind down.

Park, too, has sent signals that she may want to ease tensions. She recently met with former Japanese finance minister Fukushiro Nukaga, and Kim Kwan-jin, the chief of South Korea’s National Security Office, recently met Abe’s national security adviser, Shotaro Yachi.

With Abe, Park and Xi each facing daunting domestic challenges, a rare convergence in each country of self-interest and national interest may be creating a chance for improved relations. The question now is whether Northeast Asia’s Big Three leaders can overcome old positions, shake hands and get serious about regional diplomacy.

— Project Syndicate, 2014

Yuriko Koike, Japan’s former defence minister and national security adviser, was Chairwoman of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party’s General Council and currently is a member of the National Diet.