The agenda is full. Particularly important are territorial disputes in East Asia which could turn violent. Relations between the People’s Republic of China and its neighbors have deteriorated, naval confrontations have increased, and Washington has been dragged into the mess.
The issues are many. China makes contested claims to the Diaoyu/Senkaku, Nansha/Spratly, and Xisha/Paracel Islands, as well as Huangyan Island/Scarborough Reef. (I will use the more familiar names in the West.) On the other side are Brunei, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, and Vietnam.
Despite its physical distance, the U.S. remains entangled in these disputes. Perceived Chinese aggressiveness has spurred the so‐called “pivot” to Asia, including the augmentation of military forces and strengthening of military alliances.
Conflict between China and other states easily could drag in America, which has formal defense treaties with Japan and the Philippines. Washington and China have had their own contentious disagreement over the U.S. Navy’s legal right to conduct intelligence gathering within China’s 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone.
The PRC obviously has important interests at stake. It wants international acceptance of control over its territory. Beneath the disputed waters are potentially significant energy deposits. As a great trading nation China is concerned about secure ocean transit. Good relations with its neighbors would ease its rise to regional primacy and global leadership.
Most fundamental may be the issue of peace. The PRC has suffered much over the last two centuries. Although policy reform was necessary for China’s economic transformation, so was the absence of war. The latter allowed Beijing to concentrate on economic growth, which has allowed an ever larger share of the population to escape immiserating poverty. The PRC is wealthier today, but remains a relatively poor nation with great income disparities. China still needs peace.
America’s interests may be fewer but are no less profound. The U.S. would benefit from greater resource development. Washington also is concerned about global norms, especially the peaceful resolution of territorial disputes. The U.S. is committed to its traditional alliances, seeks secure sea lanes for its trade, and desires stability and peace in a region with which it has abundant political, economic, and cultural ties.