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 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 isn’t 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 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.

The Corrections

We’ve known for a long time that the U.S. lifestyle is unsupportable. The current economic downturn, because it began in the United States and has largely affected those with large investments, might have been the kind of “market correction” that levels the global playing field. Corporate executives see their year-end bonuses “corrected,” big players in the stock market see their portfolios “corrected,” and the house-wealthy see their astronomical assessments “corrected.”

Obviously it’s become clear that many non-wealthy people in the United States are suffering during this downturn: mortgage defaults for working people, swelling unemployment rolls, shrinking pension funds. What’s less obvious, however, is the impact of the financial crisis on the poorer parts of the world.

In The Second Shockwave, FPIF columnist Michael Klare looks at the economic and political implications of the downturn on the developing world. “The greatest worry is that most of the gains achieved in eradicating poverty over the last decade or so will be wiped out, forcing tens or hundreds of millions of people from the working class and the lower rungs of the middle class back into the penury from which they escaped,” Klare writes. “Equally worrisome is the risk of food scarcity in these areas, resulting in widespread malnutrition, hunger, and starvation. All this is sure to produce vast human misery, sickness, and death, but could also result in social and political unrest of various sorts, including riot, rebellion, and ethnic strife.”

Middle East Missteps

In a pair of pieces this week, FPIF senior analyst Stephen Zunes discusses several missteps in Middle East policy made by the Obama administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress.

The first was the failure to stick up for Charles Freeman, Obama’s initial pick to head the National Intelligence Council. Freeman had made a name for himself by questioning some of the cornerstones of U.S. policy toward the Middle East, such as the Iraq invasion and unquestioned support of Israel. The hard right immediately went on the attack, creating a media firestorm that questioned Freeman’s credentials, his patriotism, and his allegiance to democracy. Freeman took himself out of the running.

“Obama apparently didn’t order Freeman’s appointment to be rescinded,” Zunes writes in Neocons 1, Obama 0. “But Obama’s refusal to come to Freeman’s defense will make it all the more difficult for the president to challenge future right-wing attacks on his administration’s policies in the Middle East and beyond. Smelling victory, the right will only become bolder in challenging any progressive inclinations in Obama’s foreign policy.”

Congress, meanwhile, compounded the problem by passing a budget that only reinforced the worst of U.S. policies in the Middle East, particularly around arms sales. It allocated $2.5 billion of aid to Israel, ignoring calls to attach conditions after Israel’s conduct in the Gaza War. But that’s not all. “An additional $1.3 billion in foreign military financing is earmarked for the Egyptian dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, $235 million for the autocratic monarchy in Jordan, $58 million for Lebanon, and $12 million for the repressive regime in Tunisia,” Zunes writes in The Budget’s Foreign Policy Handcuffs. “The only other country specifically targeted for military aid in this legislation is Colombia, which will receive $53 million.”

The Abolitionist Fallacy

Criminalizing prostitution might seem like a good way to address sex trafficking. That’s the position of the new abolitionists. They’re raiding brothels, pushing for new domestic and international laws, mobilizing the Christian community, and getting a lot of attention.

But they’re wrong. “The Bush administration, supported by the evangelical right-wing and some radical feminists, spent eight years promoting laws to criminalize prostitution and clients as the means to abolish prostitution and stop human trafficking into the sex sector,” writes FPIF contributor Ann Jordan in Sex Trafficking: The Abolitionist Fallacy. “The ideology-driven approach is notable for the absence of any concrete evidence that it works. Proponents of such an approach have also failed to demonstrate that it avoids harming women or provides other livelihoods for those it aspires to help. It reduces all adults in the sex sector (even highly paid ‘call girls’ and those working legally) to victim status and considers all prostitution to be a form of trafficking.”

Still on the topic of getting things wrong, FPIF contributor Andre Vltchek tells you everything that Hillary Clinton missed on her recent trip to Indonesia. “In her remarks in Indonesia, Clinton made no mention of genocide in Papua,” he writes in Clinton in Indonesia. “She neglected to speak of how political and militant Islam is openly defying the constitution of Indonesia and taking control of several parts of the country. And she was silent about how the business and political elite treats the impoverished, uneducated, and unrepresented majority of the people.”

Finally, in her Postcard from…Bujumbura, FPIF contributor Beth Tuckey relates some positive news about a youth center in Burundi. “Even during the war, the center was one of the few places where young people from various tribes could come to study or play sports, despite the bloodshed occurring outside the center’s property,” she writes. “Many of these youth are now taking the lead in their communities and finding more common ground with their peers across ethnic lines than politicians believe possible.”

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