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).

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 www.williampfaff.com.

© 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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