APEC at the Apex

BRISBANE – The significance of the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Beijing consists not so much in what is on APEC’s agenda as in what transpires on the sidelines. Meetings between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama; as well as Xi’s meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe loom especially large. These bilateral relationships constitute much of the strategic undercurrent of East Asian security at a time when the region’s long-term geostrategic stability has come into question.

The core reality is that the Asia-Pacific region comprises a group of rapidly globalizing twenty-first-century economies sitting on top of a set of nineteenth-century national tensions. That contradiction matters for the entire world, because the region accounts for some 60% of global output. Economically speaking, where Asia goes in the future, the world will follow.

But Asia is home to a multiplicity of unresolved territorial disputes. It is the epicenter of underlying tensions stemming from China’s rise and its impact on the United States, the region’s established power since World War II’s end. Indeed, many of the region’s territorial disputes pit China against US allies.

More broadly, the region’s rifts are endemic: a divided Korean Peninsula; territorial disputes between Russia and Japan, China and Korea, and China and Japan; the unique circumstances of Taiwan; and conflicting maritime claims in the South China Sea involving China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Taiwan. There are also long-standing border disputes between China and India, and between India and China’s ally, Pakistan.