I had dinner this week in Beijing with an elegant 85-year-old woman named He Liliang, who had one of the great front-row seats to history.
Her late husband, Huang Hua, translated for the journalist Edgar Snow when he conducted his famous interviews with Mao Zedong in 1936. Her father was Mao's teacher, and instructed him in the work of Carl von Clausewitz, the German military strategist best known for his maxim that "war is the extension of politics by other means."
Today's surging China doesn't seem interested in war or politics, only economic growth. Huang's son works in finance and his daughter-in-law works for a Hollywood studio. His country, undergoing one of the great transformations in human history, should be a source of fascination and study for the US -- not fear.
Of course, some fear is understandable, especially with occasional signs in the Chinese news media of increasing nationalist chest-thumping. China already spends more on its military than any country except the US, and is making no apologies for modernizing it. The buildup "will be based on our own concerns, not aimed at either relieving your concerns or increasing them," Major General Yunzhan Yao told me and four other visiting American journalists.
I wasn't buying Yunzhan's claim that the military is still in its "mechanization" phase and won't begin its big push for an "informationized military" until 2020 or so. But for now the military technology gap between the US and China remains huge. On Nov. 5, we were allowed to visit a People's Liberation Army base outside Beijing. The Type 88 tanks we saw, built in the 1980s, looked like antiques.
No Cold War
Our reception on the base was friendly, as it was when Admiral Mike Mullen, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reviewed Chinese military maneuvers at a different installation earlier this year. We toured the barracks and joked with a colonel about whether the NBA had made Yao Ming too soft for military service. The mood was much cheerier than when I'd interviewed Red Army generals in Moscow in the 1980s. If a new Cold War's coming, we saw no sign of it.
Zhou Wenzhong, a former Chinese ambassador to the US, said that our military officers are exaggerating the threat from China. "Deep down they know what's going on but need an argument in Congress" for big defense budgets, he told us.
That sounds about right. The US defense budget of nearly $700 billion is roughly six times as large as China's and more than twice the percentage of gross domestic product. Proposed Pentagon cuts would do little to lessen that edge.
And it's not as if China is overly preoccupied with the US. It has territorial disputes with 10 of the 12 countries that border it. "We have four nuclear neighbors," says Wu Xinbo of Fudon University, referring to India, North Korea, Pakistan and Russia. "If you lived in China, you couldn't sleep."
Maybe not, but that still doesn't explain the Sichuan-sized chip on its shoulder, the result of its power growing faster than its ability to manage it.
Fortunately, national pride has consistently taken a backseat to economic growth. Deng Xiaoping, the founder of today's China, reduced the military's share of the budget in the 1970s to concentrate on the latter. Major military modernization didn't begin until the 1990s, as the US expanded its defense ties with Taiwan.
The major hotspot nowadays is the South China Sea. After incidents of what some called brutish Chinese behavior toward foreign fishing vessels, the Obama administration, determined to show that the US is still a major Pacific power, has been conducting naval maneuvers with countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines.
"China is very upset because it feels the US is taking sides," says Wu. "If the US is concerned about nationalism, what it's doing in the South China Sea will only fuel it."
A new attitude
Although tensions in the sea have eased recently, they can worsen at any time -- as they might over Taiwan, Tibet, intellectual property, exchange rates or any of the other familiar flash points of US-China relations.
Those are predictable sources of irritation that will grow and recede. What we don't know yet is how the new crop of Chinese leaders that takes office next year will handle their dramatically enhanced status on the world stage.
I talked to a senior Chinese policy analyst about the new attitude. He had always heard that money talks, he said, but now it seems that all of China's money still doesn't let it get a word in edgewise at the International Monetary Fund and other global forums. He compared the US to the Qing Dynasty, which he said had the highest GDP in the world but collapsed a century ago because it grew complacent and failed to reform. His critique of the US's failure to get its act together on issues like education and budget deficits was accurate, but startling in its intensity. We learn from you, he said, but you think you have no need to learn anything from us.
Lawyers, not soldiers
And yet like the other sophisticated analysts we met, he showed no sign of thinking the military can solve political problems. He argued that China has benefited so much from international institutions that it has zero interest in disrupting them or jeopardizing all its accomplishments by threatening world peace. Problems should be solved by lawyers, he says, not soldiers.
Happily for the world, the "other means" for extending politics has so far meant economic competition and integration, not Clausewitz's war. Being vigilant doesn't mean that we always have to assume warlike intentions on the part of other major powers. When China's top general, Chen Bingde, visited the National Defense University in Washington in May, he quoted Franklin D. Roosevelt: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
That's good advice for both countries.
Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of "The Promise: President Obama, Year One." The opinions expressed are his own.