The leaders of China, Japan and South Korea meet in Beijing on Saturday for a summit expected to focus on drawing North Korea back to the negotiating table over its nuclear weapons programme.
The three-way gathering, the first since an inaugural meeting last December, also marks new Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's debut on the regional stage, with Tokyo's often distrustful neighbours seeking clues on his policies.
North Korea will however likely seize the spotlight, with the meeting of Hatoyama, South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao the first chance for a collective response to Pyongyang's latest statements.
The North said on Monday during a visit by Wen that it was willing to return to six-nation nuclear disarmament talks it abandoned in April -- but only if it first was granted direct negotiations with the United States.
Washington has said it would agree to bilateral talks within the six-party framework, but said that the goal must be a complete end to Pyongyang's nuclear weapons drive.
Yun Duk-Min, a professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security in Seoul, said observers will be looking for the three nations to send a "strong and united message" on the need to return to the six-nation forum.
The negotiations on ending Pyongyang's nuclear programmes are hosted by North Korea's close ally China and also include the two Koreas, the United States, Russia and Japan.
"When you handle North Korea, which is good at playing tricks, it is important for the other five nations to stay united with a firm commitment to the six-party process," said Yun.
Officials in Seoul also said Lee wanted to present what he describes as a "grand bargain" for North Korea's nuclear disarmament. South Korea has yet to elaborate on the plan.
The six-party talks had previously reached a deal under which North Korea agreed to dismantle its nuclear facilities and materials in return for a package of security guarantees and energy assistance.
Japanese foreign ministry officials said that Hatoyama -- whose Democratic Party of Japan ended more than half a century of almost unbroken rule by the conservative Liberal Democrats -- would seek to build trust with Lee and Wen.
Hatoyama will meet Lee in South Korea ahead of the Beijing summit, in an apparent sign of this new push.
Tokyo's relations with its Asian neighbours were marked by distrust and frequent animosity under the Liberal Democrats, amid perceptions Japan had failed to fully own up to its wartime aggression in the region.
"The Chinese leadership and the Korean presidency will want to have a good talk with him, to try to get an idea of what the new Japanese government is going to do," said Brian Bridges, head of political science at Hong Kong's Lingnan University.
The three leaders are also expected to touch on the general state of the global economy and on how to deal with the financial crisis.
China, South Korea, and Japan together accounted for 16 per cent of global GDP last year, make up about three-quarters of Asian economic activity and have increasingly intertwined economies.
"(South) Korea will be the host of the G20 summit (next year), so China and a newly engaged Japan will be important players in that and Lee will want to get a sense of what they might want to get out of it," Bridges said.
A Japanese foreign ministry official said Hatoyama was also expected to explain his vision for an East Asian community -- a European Union-style economic and political alliance of Asian nations.
Climate change could also be on the summit's agenda ahead of international talks in Copenhagen in December aimed at agreeing a follow-up treaty to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.