Having just returned from 10 days of travel through the booming eastern cities of China, one nagging question buzzes inside my head.
Can we live with China as it moves to become a great power?
Here's a country with 1.3 billion people that has moved from the bicycle age to the Audi age in two decades. Along the way it sucked Europe and the United States into dependence on its cheap labor and the promise of its huge internal markets. We buy their cheap goods. They return the favor by buying our T-bills, thus subsidizing our huge foreign debt.
We need them, and they know it - to the point where they demand, and get access to more and more sophisticated Western technology.
Such dependency promises an uneasy relationship as Chinese power grows, and our power inevitably wanes.
Chinese officials take pains to reassure visiting Americans about their intentions. Here's the mantra I heard over and over again during my trip, in this instance, from senior foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao: "We don't want the United States to see us as a threat. We want peaceful development."
His colleague, spokesman Qin Gang, elaborated, over a lazy-Susan-style Chinese feast: "It is baseless that China wants to expand. We want to concentrate on our economy.
"China's policy is to establish a peaceful, stable environment for economic development. We want cooperation, not confrontation."
Sounds great. But is this mantra believable?
To some extent. Chinese leaders know it will be decades before they can match the current sole superpower in economic output. They need time - and a calm relationship with us - to grow into an economic equal.
Yet, even on a brief trip, one can glimpse the internal tensions that could push Chinese leaders to become more strident. The strains of frenzied economic growth are causing tension among workers - many of whom labor under awful conditions - and among impoverished farmers. The number of protests around the country is rising.
In the name of maintaining stability, Beijing has virtually frozen political reforms and cracked down on the beginnings of an independent press. That shuts off potential safety valves as rapid economic change unsettles society.
If social tensions grow, the Communist Party could start ginning up anti-American sentiment to distract its people. It's already shocking to hear the level of vitriol that students - and adults - level at Japan.
Equally worrisome is the level of Chinese suspicion about U.S. intentions, spurred by their very different political systems. Many Communist Party officials believe the United States poses a threat to the very foundations of the People's Republic of China and Communist party rule, says professor Wang Jisi, the dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University.
"This refers to (supposed) U.S. plans to change the political color of China," Wang says. "Party officials remind themselves of the American role (in bringing about political change) in Eastern Europe, Ukraine and the country of Georgia." Such fears, make Chinese officials even less open to political reforms at home.
But Chinese behavior also stokes U.S. suspicions about their intentions. A case in point: Last July, a senior Chinese general, Zhu Chenghu, warned that his country could destroy hundreds of American cities with nuclear weapons if the two nations clashed over the question of independence for Taiwan.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesmen say Gen. Zhu, a dean at the National Defense University, was expressing a private opinion. They say his remarks did not and do not represent government policy. But there's no sign that the general was formally rebuked by the central government for what he said.
"That kind of thinking," says Professor Wang, "is widely represented in the military - that we could deter you by threatening to use nuclear weapons. I think it is dangerous to think like this."
Wang believes common economic interests should help China and the United States overcome their suspicions and strengthen cooperation. Possibly true. But one can already see how difficult this relationship will be to manage in the long run.
- Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.