The Asian order is under strain as the People’s Republic of China has become an economic colossus with growing military might and diplomatic influence. The PRC is asserting territorial claims once considered impractical or worthless. Brunei, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, and Vietnam all stand opposed to these claims.
Washington is not a claimant, but has sparred with the PRC over the U.S. Navy’s legal right to engage in intelligence gathering in Chinese waters. More important, America has a formal military alliance with Japan which, the president declared, covers disputed territories. Washington’s military relationship with Manila is looser, but Philippine officials are seeking a similar territorial guarantee.
The Obama administration has escalated U.S. involvement by sending American aircraft over islands reclaimed by China and discussing joint patrols with the Japanese.
Most of the islands are intrinsically worthless and provide little security value. Maritime rights are affected but, in peacetime, the difference wouldn’t matter so much. In wartime, everything would depend on the capabilities of the contending navies.
The economic benefits from control are real but still relatively small compared to the economies of most of the claimants. For most of the countries, national ego is the primary issue.