I have never understood the widely touted idea or assumption of China-U.S. equality or partnership or joint rule of the world or superpower partnership that has dominated the press coverage of Barack Obama’s trip to Asia. In what ways do any of these descriptions really fit the situation?

Soviet Russia and the United States could reasonably be spoken of as the “two superpowers” because they provided the dynamic ideological core of the Cold War, the two fundamental and indispensable antagonists — or so it seemed in the beginning, back in the 1950s and 1960s. But even then there was more hyperbole than substance in the description, although the two sides perhaps did not think so, since both were gratified with being one of the Two Greats of this world.

In the China-America case, there is Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s modest final statement that China remains a developing country, far from ready to strike a partnership with the U.S. The Chinese nation has indeed awakened, a moment when “the world would be sorry,” according to a warning from Napoleon. But, under the regime of Mao Zedong and his colleagues, it was mainly the awakened Chinese themselves and their neighbors who were given cause to be sorry.

The agitation about China’s supposed challenge to the United States comes mainly from Americans and American-influenced commentators, and from Asians within the Chinese orbit, and their measure is that of scale and statistical potential, which are not really the decisive measures of world influence.

Population is the criterion mainly cited, and China is expected to have a population in 2010 of 1.365 billion. The estimation for the United States in 2010 is 315 million — a difference of a billion people. Population is an advantage when it is made up of active, qualified and productive people.

When this is not so, as in China, the people have to be fed and organized, and an enormous effort made to keep the nation in order, the population controllable by the government — a challenge that invited the disorders and hysterical politics of the late Maoist years, and haunts the present government.

Though China is developing its military power and has the largest army on earth, it is difficult to see the utility of this army other than as an instrument of intimidation of important regional enemies, which China lacks. There are the Korean and Taiwan flash points, and disputes over historical frontier boundaries, but there is also a history of Pacific accommodation. Its military is irrelevant to the United States, except for the small Chinese nuclear deterrent force.

The United States is dynamic and belligerent, with an expansive ideology. This is why the Chinese treat Washington with great circumspection. As recently as 1952, Gen. Douglas MacArthur was advocating nuclear attack on the Chinese mainland to “win” the Korean War, and in 1963, when the Pentagon was successfully pressing Lyndon Johnson to commit combat troops to the Vietnam War, some officers recommended nuclear attack on North Vietnam — presumed at the time to be an instrument of Chinese Communist aggression. The American military record over the years since the Vietnam truce, and particularly since 9/11, is an intimidating one.

It would not be prudent to provoke the United States. China finances the American trade deficit and is heavily invested in American dollars and assets, but this is as much a matter of Chinese weakness as of strength.

China’s economy still relies on Western outsourcing and Western technology in order to claim a front-rank role of world economic influence, and relies on the confidence of Washington. It is diversifying its assets, but in regard to Washington continues to walk a line.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at williampfaff.com.

© 2009 Tribune Media Services Inc.

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