04/24/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Next Cold War?

Let's say that China sends a ship 75 miles off San Diego to do a little surveillance. Those are international waters, after all, and Beijing is interested in the latest developments in our submarine warfare capabilities at Naval Base Point Loma. And it wants to do some reconnaissance for its own expanding fleet of subs. Want to bet that the United States dispatches a ship to tell the Chinese to back off?

Earlier this month when the situation was reversed, however, America got all huffy when China confronted the USNS Impeccable, a surveillance vessel, 75 miles from China's naval base at Hainan Island. The Pentagon argued that the United States can do whatever it wants in international waters. China responded that the Impeccable was in China's 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone, which it says should be restricted to peaceful activities.

The United States has refused to back down. "We're going to continue to operate in those international waters, and we expect the Chinese to observe international law around that," said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

Wait a second: did he say international law? Which international law was Gibbs referring to? The relevant statute would be the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which China has ratified but the United States has not. Oh, and by the way, the convention is quite specific: use of the exclusive economic zone "shall be reserved for peaceful purposes."

International law notwithstanding, the United States has long treated the Pacific as an American lake and China as beachfront property that we have to keep a special eye on. "Today, the United States and its allies Japan and South Korea are deploying Aegis destroyers to encircle China's coastline and put its small nuclear deterrent capability at risk," writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Bruce Gagnon in Arms Race in Space as part of our Pacific Freeze coverage. "China also knows that the U.S. Space Command has been annually war-gaming a first-strike attack on its nation. In a computer war game set in the year 2016, the United States launches the attack, using a system now under development called the military space plane."

China is not taking this all lying down. Beijing is modernizing its military at a rapid clip. It has announced a nearly 15% increase in spending for 2009, the 19th time in 20 years that it has increased its military budget by double digits. That's still one-eighth of U.S. military spending, but the Pentagon is nervously checking its rearview mirror. Navy officials in particular are worried that China's fleet is on track to outstrip the U.S. fleet in size, though not capabilities, in the next decade.

China's economy will also likely show the world's only significant growth this year as other major economies slip into stagnation or worse. There will be, of course, a cut in global demand, a drop in Chinese exports, downsizing at Chinese factories, and more unrest throughout the country. "China's economy may suffer more than most others, but it also has more tools and resources in reserve than most others," James Fallows concludes in a relatively upbeat article in The Atlantic. "There is one more part of the big picture: the opportunities that today's disruption may be opening for future Chinese growth."

China's economic versatility and military rise has created anxiety and even a measure of resignation among U.S. foreign policy elites. In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, Robert Kaplan acknowledges that America won't be king of the hill for much longer. Ah, wrong metaphor: U.S. strength derives as much from its dominion over the sea as its ability to project force over land. Kaplan advises Washington to use its current naval capabilities to usher in a new age of balance of power centered around the Indian Ocean and presided over by China and India. "Rather than ensure its dominance," he writes, "the U.S. Navy simply needs to make itself continually useful."

This is a rather astounding statement. This early supporter of the Iraq War and cheerleader for the American imperium is now urging his government to become a team player. Like the U.S. soldiers that he has interviewed extensively, Kaplan is perhaps suffering his own version of travel fatigue and imperial overstretch. He's still too much of a realpolitik devotee to become a charter member of the Ban-Ki Moon fan club. But his grudging acceptance of multipolarity suggests that the winds are shifting.

One new approach embraced by the Obama administration is 3D: development, diplomacy, and defense. In this scenario, the military makes itself useful, in Kaplan's sense of the word, by helping with economic development and stabilizing states. It's actually not a new approach, points out FPIF contributor Francis Njubi Nesbitt in Hearts and Minds and Empire. We've been there before --- think Vietnam --- and it was ugly. "Militarizing development is not the answer," Nesbitt writes in our new Empire Strategic Focus. "The prudent direction would be to divorce development assistance from defense and invest resources in building relations with nongovernmental and civil society organizations instead of militaries. The United States would have a more positive impact if it focused on supporting the institutionalization of conflict resolution processes in multilateral organizations such as the United Nations."

If history is any judge, empires are most dangerous when they are on the decline. Just as the Ottomans, the Austro-Hungarians, and the Russians indulged in various stupidities to preserve their empires at the beginning of the 20th century, the United States may go to similarly tragic lengths to maintain its position at the beginning of the 21st. The Iraq War debacle, which "humbled" Kaplan, may well have been the beginning of the end. The continuing Afghanistan misadventure is another sign of the insanity that the gods have inflicted on those they intend to destroy.

But the naval confrontation in the South China Sea could be the most dangerous indication of them all. For all their senseless violence, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan remain regional wars. A confrontation between China and the United States, however unlikely it might seem given the economic interdependence of the two countries, would necessarily be global. Let's hope that these two imperial boats passing in the night manage to negotiate an equitable distribution of global power with more aplomb than they showed earlier this month.

Before the Chinese show up off the coast of California for some imperial quid pro quo, the United States should wake up, sign the Law of the Sea, and actually abide by its provisions. Now that would be a sea change.

Crossposted from Foreign Policy In Focus.

To subscribe to FPIF's World Beat, click here.