Will 2020 be a better year for Asia? The answer to that hinges in many ways on a critical meeting in Chengdu on Christmas Eve. Today, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in meet at a summit in the capital of Sichuan province. The North Korean threat and trilateral free trade talks are on the agenda. On the sidelines, Mr Abe and Mr Moon will get a chance to defuse tensions over recent bilateral spats. Progress on all these fronts will benefit not just the parties to the trilateral summit but also the wider Asian region.
The most immediate concern is North Korea. The summit is taking place after a series of provocative tests and rocket launches by Pyongyang, which has warned ominously of a “Christmas gift” if it does not get satisfactory concessions from Washington in disarmament talks. Negotiations have faltered since the Hanoi summit collapsed in February. The United States says North Korea must start disarming first before sanctions can be lifted. Pyongyang says it has done enough in dismantling its nuclear and missile programmes. Its announcement earlier this month of a successful engine test at its Sohae long-range test facility is telling. If the “Christmas gift” involves the testing of a missile that could potentially reach the US continent, that would be a signal that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is prepared to unravel the diplomatic gains made since the 2018 Singapore summit. Even if no intercontinental ballistic missiles are involved, the shorter-range missiles that could reach Japan and a more aggressive turn in Pyongyang’s policies are detrimental to regional security. China hopes the summit will have a “constructive effect” on peace in the peninsula.