By Agence France-Presse
CHENGDU, China (AFP) – China hosts the leaders of squabbling neighbors South Korea and Japan on Tuesday, flexing its diplomatic muscle with America’s two key military allies in Asia and seeking regional unity on how to deal with a belligerent North Korea.
The gathering in the southwestern city of Chengdu is being held with the clock ticking on a threatened ”Christmas gift” from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that would reignite global tensions over its nuclear program.
Kim has promised the unidentified ”gift,” which analysts and American officials believe could be a provocative missile test, if the United States does not act make concessions in their nuclear talks by the end of the year.
The gathering in Chengdu will also feature the first one-on-one meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in for 15 months.
Ties between their two nations have hit rock bottom in recent months over trade issues and other disputes related to decades of bitter wrangling over Japan’s 1910-45 occupation of the Korean peninsula.
The United States has frequently urged its two allies to bury the hatchet, worried that their poor relations were complicating diplomacy in Asia — although it has held off on direct mediation.
China is appearing to fill that void with its Chengdu event.
”As the region’s major power, China hopes to show its diplomatic presence to the world by bringing the Japanese and South Korean leaders to the same table,” Haruko Satoh, professor and expert on Chinese politics at Osaka University, told AFP.
At separate lead-up meetings in Beijing on Monday with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Moon and Abe both spoke of China’s hefty diplomatic influence in the region.
Moon expressed his appreciation for China’s ”important role in securing denuclearization and peace on the Korean peninsula.”
Long-running efforts to contain North Korea’s nuclear program have been largely deadlocked since the collapse of a second summit between US President Donald Trump and Kim in Hanoi at the start of this year.
In an effort to pressure the United States, the North has conducted a series of short-range missile tests and threatened to go further with its ”Christmas gift.”
Former US national security adviser John Bolton, who was dismissed in September, on Monday criticized Trump’s strategy and warned the North posed an ”imminent” threat.
”The risk to US forces & our allies is imminent & more effective policy is required before NK has the technology to threaten the American homeland,” tweeted Bolton.
Before leaving for China, Abe told reporters that links with Seoul remained ”severe,” though the Chengdu meeting was important given the regional issues at stake.
”Considering the security environment in East Asia, I recognize that relations between Japan and South Korea as well as relations among Japan, the US and South Korea are important,” he said.