Scott Morrison will fly head-on into tense talks with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during a tight trip to Thailand.
The prime minister will also try to turbo-charge negotiations on an Asian trade pact during his overnight visit to Bangkok.
Mr Morrison flies out on Sunday to attend the East Asia Summit.
The event brings together 18 regional leaders each year to discuss economic and security issues.
He will make a beeline for a bilateral meeting with the Chinese premier after touching down.
Sunday's meeting comes just days after China scolded Australia's foreign minister for daring to suggest Beijing should be called out over human rights abuses.
There has been friction between Australia and its largest trading partner, but Mr Morrison has sought to define the relationship by what the two nations have in common, rather than their differences.
The prime minister hoped to finalise a complex free trade agreement during his trip but senior officials no longer expect the deal to be wrapped up.
Instead, leaders of the 16 countries involved are likely to report on a "path to conclusion".
The EU-style Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership would include all 10 ASEAN nations as well as Japan, China, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
The trading bloc would encompass 30 per cent of global gross domestic product and nearly half the world's population.
The deal was due to be hammered out by Christmas following seven years of negotiations, but India's resistance to removing agricultural tariffs has proven a sticking point.
Negotiations have ramped up in recent months as pressure mounts to seal the deal as the US-China trade war drags on.
With the APEC summit in Chile abruptly cancelled following weeks of violent unrest, the prime minister will attempt to pack a stack of bilateral meetings around the setpiece events.
The United States has downgraded its attendance at the summit, with Donald Trump choosing not to attend and sending his assistant national security adviser Robert O'Brien instead.
In a speech in Washington on Friday, Australian Defence Minister Linda Reynolds urged to US to play a greater role in the Indo-Pacific to counter China's power and influence.
On the sidelines of the summit, Mr Morrison will address Australian and Thai business figures at a breakfast event.
Thailand is Australia's 10th largest trading partner, importing roughly $4.8 billion worth of goods each year.
The prime minister will also pay his respects to Australians captured by Japan during World War II.
Mr Morrison will rededicate a memorial to the Burma-Thailand Railway and Hellfire Pass, with time capsules being resealed and moved to the Australian embassy in Bangkok.
"ASEAN and its forums, such as the East Asia Summit, play a central role in supporting the rules and norms that have underpinned prosperity, security and stability in our region for more than 50 years," he said in a statement.
KEY ISSUES AT THE EAST ASIA SUMMIT:
* Tensions in the South China Sea
* Myanmar, Rakhine State and Rohingya refugees
* North Korea's nuclear weapons programs
* Counter-terrorism, violent extremism and transnational crime
* Sustainable development
* Disaster management.
Australian Associated Press