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, 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.