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The debate over whether U.S. interests abroad are better served by hard power or soft power is perennial. Now there is a third option—energy power—about which Democrats and Republicans seem to agree.
U.S. President Barack Obama must consider which priority in East Asia -- the credibility of the pivot or the avoidance of conflict -- is the most pressing and deal with it, since the risk of confrontation in the East China Sea will not go away anytime soon.
In official statements, the United States claims to be a neutral observer in disputes over islands in the South and East China Seas. In fact, major U.S. energy firms have already partnered with Malaysian, Vietnamese, and Philippine state-owned oil companies to develop promising reserves in maritime territories claimed by those countries as well as China -- and the United States appears intent on protecting those projects and other interests in the region with military might.
Until recently, Asian countries' competing claims in the seas around China did not cause outright conflict. But now that drilling technology can tap gas and oil beds there, Asia capitals are stepping up their games.
As last year's global shortage of petroleum and natural gas showed, the world can no longer keep up with the demands of continued population growth and economic expansion. Indeed, the competition for natural resources is intensifying. And with four-fifths of the world's oil reserves lying in politically unstable areas, with diamond and timber wars already raging in Central Africa, and with many regions suffering persistent drought, resource competition could easily turn into open conflict. Governments now see the acquisition and protection of natural resources as a national security requirement -- and one they are prepared to fight for.
Fueled by dramatic economic growth, the nations of East and Southeast Asia are engaged in an arms race that shows every sign of accelerating. These countries are importing not only complex weapon systems but, more important, the technology with which to manufacture them. Since longstanding territorial and border disputes remain (most notably in the South China Sea) and the twin threats of China and Japan loom large, the potential for conflict is great. Without arms control and regional security measures, the Pacific Rim could one day be the site of a major conflagration.