The Aug. 19 dangerous encounter between a U.S. Navy surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea was in the Pentagon's words "certainly not in keeping with the kind of military-to-military relations" the United States seeks with China. Political relations are tenuous as well.

Many analysts in both the U.S. and China have warned of a "tipping point" in China-U.S. relations beyond which the two conclude that conflict is unavoidable and begin preparing for it in earnest while trying to hide their true intentions. This is different from hedging in that there is no easy way back.

Beyond the tipping point the national mind-set and policy decisions inexorably tilt and then flow toward conflict.