US President Barack Obama's reiteration of his country's shared commitment to the security of the waters of the region and freedom of navigation helped set the mood for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in Manila this week. The US$259 million (S$369 million) in maritime security assistance to America's regional allies that he pledged might not be large enough for some, but it was a gesture of material support that underpinned Washington's resolve to prevent the powerful from overwhelming the security interests of the weak in the South China Sea disputes. The US demonstrated once again its refusal to contemplate the prospects of Asia coming under the exclusive domination of any power.
America's allies and security partners would welcome this reminder of the need for strategic caution in the maritime dispute. In particular, China's land reclamation efforts in the Spratly archipelago have raised tensions that need to be brought down. As always, recourse to international law remains the best avenue of a peaceful resolution.
However, it is important to keep the spirit of Apec alive even in the midst of differences between the United States and China. Apec has a strong economic rationale. Its sense of mission as the premier Asia-Pacific economic forum requires its 21 member-economies to work closely together to promote free and open trade and investment. The outlook at the moment is not rosy. In a reflection of bearish sentiments pervading global markets, foreign direct investment inflows to Apec economies dropped 22.1 per cent to US$651.8 billion in 2014 compared to US$836.9 billion the previous year. This is not the time for Apec members to forget the crucial need for viable economic integration.
There are competing visions for trade and investment in the region. The US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, for example, represents a net plus for each of its 12 signatories. Then there is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a Chinese initiative. Asean has its own destination of economic integration. These pacts were conceptualised largely because of the failure of the World Trade Organisation to forge a common economic future. Apec fulfils a clearly important function by tying together the two sides of the Asia-Pacific. American engagement plays a crucial role but hopes for an Asian economic renaissance are unlikely to be fulfilled without the vibrancy and contribution of China.
In this context, integrating China more closely into the Asia-Pacific economic system could yield strategic benefits. The more interlinked the economies are, the greater the common strategic need to maintain regional peace. When all see their futures as interconnected, there might be less of a tendency to rock the boat by claiming the seas.