It could be a joke of the “a penguin, a rabbi, and a priest walked into a bar” variety, but this one would start, “five Chinese naval vessels operating in the Bering Sea sailed into U.S. territorial waters, coming within 12 miles of the U.S. coast...” And the punch line would be yours to come up with. Certainly, that “event,” which did indeed occur recently (without notification to U.S. authorities), caused a small news flap here, in part because President Obama was then visiting Alaska. Not since German U-boats prowled off the East Coast of the U.S. during World War II had such a thing happened and though American officials reported that the Chinese had done nothing illegal or that failed to comply with international law, it still had a certain shock effect in a country that’s used to its own navy traveling the world’s waters at will.
No one would think to report similarly on U.S. ships transiting global waters of every sort (often with the urge to impress or issue a warning). It’s the norm of our world that the U.S. can travel the waters of its choice, including Chinese territorial ones, without comment or prior notification to anybody, and that it can build strings of bases and garrisons to “contain” China, and determine which waters off China’s coasts are “Chinese” and which are, in effect, American. This is commonplace and so hardly news here.
Any Chinese attempt to challenge this, however symbolically -- and those five ships were clearly meant to tweak the maritime nose of the globe’s “sole superpower" -- is news indeed. That includes, of course, the giant, grim, militaristic parade the Chinese leadership recently organized in the streets of Beijing, which U.S. news reports left you feeling had taken place, like the brief voyage of those five ships, somewhere in close proximity to U.S. territory. There's no question that, despite recent economic setbacks, the Chinese still consider themselves the rising power on planet Earth, and are increasingly eager to draw some aggressive boundaries in the Pacific, while challenging a country that is “pivoting” directly into its neighborhood in a very public way. Get used to all this. It’s the beginning of what could prove to be a decades-long militarized contest between two bulked-up powers, each eager enough to be off the coast of the other one (though the only coast China is likely to be off in a serious way for a long time to come is the cyber-coast of America).
Fortunately, TomDispatch has Alfred McCoy, a veteran empire watcher, keeping an eye on all of this. Recently, he wrote a much-noted piece, “The Geopolitics of American Global Decline,” on Chinese attempts to reorganize the “world island” of Eurasia and break the encircling bounds of American power. Today, in what is in essence part two, he turns to the other side of the equation, American power (never to be underestimated), and suggests that, in the imperial sweepstakes that have been the essence of global politics since at least the sixteenth century, the most underestimated figure of our moment may be President Barack Obama. The question McCoy raises: Might Obama’s global policies, much derided here, actually extend the American “century” deep into the twenty-first?