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China Fears Are Misplaced

Posted on Oct 11, 2011
Dennis Jarvis (CC-BY-SA)

By William Pfaff

There is a segment of the American policy community that believes international society to be a system of permanent conflicts of interests and rivalries for primacy, with war the ultimate recourse. Jean-Paul Sartre, no anthropologist but an influential figure in his time, gave voice to this view at the end of the Second World War when he spoke of humanity’s “interiorized scarcity” as causing “everyone to see everyone else as Other and as the source of evil.”

This is not the current Pentagon view, which prefers to look upon mankind as mostly composed of candidate Americans and American allies, waiting to be introduced, by force on occasion, to democratic rule. This is the progressive view also conventionally held in academic as well as popular circles in the U.S., where it is common to think that humanity is headed for some version of universal democracy. A new book by Steven Pinker of Harvard, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” which was featured in The New York Times, develops the argument that evolutionary progress, allegedly rising intelligence (IQ) and scientific reasoning are probably making men and women smarter people who will make a better world. There are some of us who doubt this.

China currently is at the center of long-term Washington policy and of its military preoccupations particularly. Today, the United States may still be the world’s leading military and economic power, but in both respects the fiery Chinese dragon’s breath is felt and feared, with implications being debated in the K Street think tanks.

The fear is misplaced. The military concern is only indirectly justified, in that the strategic entanglement of one with the other continues to make it difficult for the United States and China to disengage, both psychologically and in the field or at sea.

China is committed to unification with Taiwan, all but impossible militarily, and the United States has a defense treaty with the Taiwanese government, which it does not want to invoke but conceivably might be compelled to respect (to the misfortune of all).


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Until 1999, the government of Taiwan claimed to be the government of China in exile. Abandoning this claim was at the same time an automatic rejection of China’s claim that the island is a rebel province. The symmetrical claims of the former Kuomintang on Taiwan and the Communist government of the mainland were thereby simultaneously undermined, although Beijing maintains its claim. The reciprocal claims have always been all but meaningless because unrealizable, but the establishment of democracy in Taiwan presents a fundamentally altered political situation in the region.

China and North Korea now are the only non-democracies in East Asia, and in neither country does the existing government seem to have much of a future. North Korea’s weakness and inner contradictions offer the prospect of an extremely dangerous collapse. China is making aggressive maritime, territorial and offshore claims in the South China Sea that the states of the area and the United States contest. This affords China’s government the appearance of great strength but the opposite is likely to prove true: that it is extremely fragile because of the decline in its political legitimacy, which rests on successfully having carried off the economic transformation of the country.

This transformation is now in jeopardy because of the external crisis of capitalism—of which China practices a maladapted simulacrum. The United States now is attacking its trade and currency policies. Internally, China suffers inflation, low wages, a distressed middle class, a weak social net covering only a part of China’s vast population and much rural poverty.

China’s buildup of its army (which allegedly “worries” Washington) is of actual interest to the United States only if it intends to invade China, which is unlikely. Its purchase of the hulk of a Ukrainian aircraft carrier for “training purposes” and expansion of its deep-water navy are equally irrelevant to the U.S., which, for reasons unknown to anyone outside the Pentagon and the Congress, maintains a deep-water navy larger than all the rest of the world’s navies combined.

The other widely heard fear of China, which seems to have become a popular myth in the U.S., is that China is about to outstrip the United States economically and industrially. This is vastly exaggerated (as I have argued before in this space). China is commonly described as the “next superpower” because of its gross national product (GNP) numbers. But GNP numbers are meaningless unless what is being produced is a qualitative challenge to its rivals, not an overtaking in volume production of secondary technology goods and components for high-technology goods being produced elsewhere, as today is the case for China.

This will not always be the case. The Chinese leadership is well aware of the country’s deficiencies in this respect and is in a position to control research and education in the country (and abroad, to the extent that it is a state interest to direct Chinese students abroad into scientific and technological areas where the nation has a need to catch up with and eventually surpass the United States). To an America in industrial and educational decline, this threat is not for tomorrow, but is nonetheless not negligible, and worth attention. Remember defeated and impoverished Japan in 1945, and what followed?

Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at

© 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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By heterochromatic, October 15, 2011 at 5:08 pm Link to this comment

I enjoyed this and agreed with quite a bit, but kept sticking at this sentence ....

“China’s buildup of its army (which allegedly “worries” Washington) is of actual
interest to the United States only if it intends to invade China, which is

....which came after the author asserts that the legitimacy of the regime rests
on the success of the economic transformation, followed by a list of China’s
internal problems compromising the success of the economic transformation
and, implicitly the regime’s legitimacy and (I assume to be implied) non-violent
control of the country.

Now, I consider the list of China’s problems to be understated as it didn’t
include the (unauthorized and formally forbidden) shift of many millions of the
rural people into urban areas and also the Muslim separatist movement. There
are indications that some of the separatists have been and are inside Pakistan
undergoing training with the Islamist militants.

So, I wonder if the Chinese army might be employed in fighting Islamists inside
the border and possibly beyond and I come back to that contention that
Washington shouldn’t be worried about the beefing up

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By examinator, October 13, 2011 at 7:39 pm Link to this comment

William Pfaff,
I tend to believe firefly’s take more than yours in that it tends to be more objectively analytical or the root cause of America’s faltering (for good cause) self image. Paranoia because most Americans can’t conceive of America,therefore them, not being being the one international exception (doctrine of exceptionalism).
Your view seems to reflect Hillary Clinton’s latest essay. It however, is more a political one rather than a dispassionate assessment of US engagement in Asia as a whole. As a consequence your view is likewise biased in that it is predicated on the US being able to sustain that exceptionalism.
What it doesn’t seem to understand than that American logic isn’t always applicable. It also doesn’t factor in externalities like the effects of ACC and strictly Asian alliances etc. Keep in mind also that your brand of Economics is based on perception rather than reality and is unreliable for predictions especially when it deals with the unexpected.
Other countries are currently running this debate and not necessarily agreeing with Madam Foreign Secretary.
The US and the western world has much soul searching to do.

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By firefly, October 13, 2011 at 3:15 pm Link to this comment

William Pfaff, I think this is an interesting
article, but it doesn’t have much to do with Steven
Pinker’s new book which is fundamentally about the
decline of human violence over many generations.

I don’t agree with Pinker’s notions, because I
believe he takes a very Western perspective (i.e. if
you happen to live in the US or Europe, violence is
indeed a lot less than it was during the Middle Ages.
However, if you happen to live in Afghanistan, Iraq,
the Congo or Darfur, you probably wouldn’t think that
violence is on the decline)

The paranoia that the US has about China is based on
the US’s understanding of what makes a superpower.
The US’s entire ideology for the last 5 decades or so
is based on material acquisition, competition, money
and weapons. As China is actually now richer (as
America’s banker) and growing in military strength,
it’s not surprising that the US sees China as a super
power. However, based on this article, of course
there are other historical factors that have made a
country a super power, and China doesn’t have these.

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By frecklefever, October 13, 2011 at 2:06 pm Link to this comment


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By Richard Wills, October 13, 2011 at 10:07 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

For the last couple of centuries, yankee capitalists have drooled over the opportunity to forcibly open up the markets of the Orient.  And, a number of the wars we have fought were intended to accomplish that goal. To sell them cheap gimcracks and import luxury items and resources.

  If the late 1840’s Mexican diplomats had been competent, they would of negotiated San Francisco harbor to the US and kept the rest of California.  For a while anyway. Like the British did with China for Hong Kong.  The Yankees, when they thought about, just considered everything between the Mississippi and the Pacific a desert of little value to them.

  I agree with Pfaff’s thesis that China has serious problems that most American’s {including the media & the politicians} do not understand.  Whether or not the PRC regime can survive through the next generation is questionable.  Fortunately for the apparatus, western businessmen are willing to cooperate with any & every despot, that comes along.  They never allow eternal morality to interfere with immediate profits.

  And to help prop up the CCP regime, we just happened to have a huge surplus of military/police trained and experienced in COIN warfare.  This will force our access to the enormous resources of Central Asia, the “Stans and Tibet and Greater Mongolia.

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By MeHere, October 13, 2011 at 7:20 am Link to this comment

Fear and casino financial games have become our best national products.

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By gerard, October 12, 2011 at 8:09 pm Link to this comment

“China suffers inflation, low wages, a distressed middle class, a weak social net covering only a part of China’s vast population and much rural poverty.”

Sounds familiar?  Furthermore, the very ingredients for war to “stimulate the economy” and avoid systemic changes. 

Our best hope for the survival of the human race lies in the various “Arab springs,” the European uprisings, the Occupy Wall Street” people and their huge capacity for public education, and the democratic elements of various Asian societies who have pretty much lost the taste for wars, thanks to bitter experiences within the living memories of millions of their citizenry.

We in the USA need to learn how to stop reacting to fear before it destroys us completely.

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prisnersdilema's avatar

By prisnersdilema, October 11, 2011 at 8:33 pm Link to this comment

Your treading on dangerous ground here.William..America without fear? Americans
without fear?  What would happen to the terror war? Not to mention the billions sent to
the pentagon each year, to keep away the fears that we will be incinerated in our sleep…

Hopefully the secret comitte who authorizes secret orders for MDK’s, won’t take
notice..And send a secret drone after you in secret…

The whole unreality of our national self delusion is built on fear…and the secret that deep
down at the very bottom of our souls, we are afraid…A fear created by our guilt and our
greed, a fear that no amount of material wealth and military might will ever ease…and
this is why we are neurotic..

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By gerard, October 11, 2011 at 7:58 pm Link to this comment

One might well raise a more fundamental question in regard to relations between nations: What really motivates all these various fears among nations, century after century?  And how are such fears useful to national governments? 

One reasonable explanation is that external fears are useful in increasing feelings of internal loyalty and solidarity (ie. patriotism, them v. us, etc). Wars are useful as economic stimulants—encourage production, investment, invention, tech development etc.

In plain words, fear prepares people to believe propaganda and to draw together in solidarity against “the not-us people”. It causes societies to “cohere”.  Coherent societies are easier to lead.  That means that power can be exerted with less effort, and force and violence can be more easily used against “outsiders”.

Fhs more coherent the zociety, the less effort it takes to cause it to move against another society, and the less coherent that society is, the more likely it will “lose” in competiting for power.

On the other hand, war tends to cause a society to lose its coherence, due to doubts raised about moral questions, and faith undermined by human and financial losses.

It is doubtful that this factor of national coherence (temporarily gained from pitting “them against us”) has been studied enough to yield widely influential results.  Hence “blood sacrifices” still occur repeatedly, in spite of the sure eventual results of ever-incrasing chaos, cruelty and disaster.

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