The world's preoccupation with China's sudden rise as an economic superpower is a matter of some bemusement among Chinese political leaders and intellectuals. Massive trade surpluses with the rest of the world? The embrace of free markets and globalization? The Chinese have been there before. As we see it, this is not China's rise, but rather its restoration to its historical position of global influence.

Today's restoration constitutes China's third great encounter with the West, following the Jesuit missions of the 16th century and the Opium Wars of the 1800s. The current encounter -- this time between equals -- will produce much more than economic competition with the United States. As China's economic strength grows, no one, not even the Chinese ourselves, can prevent China's influence from spreading into politics, values and ideology. It is in those arenas that conflicts with the United States can arise, and unfortunately, it is precisely in those areas that misunderstandings between the two nations run rampant.

When I was the Henry Kissinger Scholar at the Library of Congress two years ago, I was both amused and appalled to learn that most China policy analysts in Washington were still focused on Western political concerns such as how to democratize China or old-fashioned security issues such as how to strike a balance of power within Asia. As a result, I frequently encountered books and articles about the region with sensationalistic and melodramatic titles, such as "Taming the Red Dragon." Aaron L. Friedberg, who later was Vice President Cheney's deputy national security adviser, served up such works as "The Struggle for Mastery in Asia."

Such are the preoccupations of a self-proclaimed indispensable superpower. This hubris was as evident in the Bush administration as it had been among President Bill Clinton's foreign policy elite. Except for a sober corner at the National Intelligence Council, Washington seemed to have turned into ancient Rome, believing it could manage the world singlehandedly, with or without friends.

Sadly, when it comes to China, most Washington think tanks have stopped thinking. Perhaps hoping to double their research funding, U.S. analysts tend to decouple China's domestic politics from its foreign policy and assess the two separately. Many also assume that Chinese leaders will shift their behavior only in response to well-designed external pressures, completely disregarding the role of domestic realities. (Perhaps this is why poor Chinese-language competence in Washington think tanks is no deterrent to the proliferation of China-related reports, briefing papers and strategies.) Only neoconservatives such as Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol and Pentagon adviser Michael Pillsbury seemed to understand the link between a country's external behavior and its internal politics, though whether they fully understand China is a different matter.

Chinese leaders never separate the domestic from the external. When Mao Zedong met Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in 1972, Nixon made a somewhat flattering remark: "You have changed the world." Nixon, of course, was referring to the Cold War bipolar system. But Mao's answer reflected a different view. "No, I did not change the world, only the downtown or perhaps suburban Beijing." He was thinking of domestic politics, lamenting that his Cultural Revolution, as brutal as it was, failed to change the Chinese way of life.

Whatever grand global visions Chinese president Hu Jintao might trade with President Bush in his visit to Washington this week, one thing is certain: When Hu wakes up every morning, foreign policy is far from his mind. Are farmers satisfied with the recent government decision on agricultural taxes? Would a revaluation of the yuan push millions of low-wage textile workers into the streets? And why is former president Jiang Zemin still active in politics behind the scenes? Such concerns dominate Hu's daily activities.

Washington's policy elites hardly deserve all the blame for the lack of mutual understanding. For a long time, Chinese leaders have been incapable of explaining China to the outside world. When the Chinese invent a foreign policy theme, they often deploy coded language that leads to more confusion than clarity on the international front.

A good example is Beijing's recent drive for a non-ideological foreign policy under the motto of "China's Peaceful Rise." Publicly, Chinese leaders stress the twin intentions of the Peaceful Rise: embracing economic globalization and avoiding a Cold War-style confrontation with the West. In reality, the concept is muddled. If China's ascent concludes peacefully, what happens once it reaches the top? Could it then use force to seek global hegemony? And since no country remains on top forever, how would China deal with an eventual fall?

The concept's inventor, a former Communist Party propaganda chief named Zheng Bijian, is a key adviser to Hu. He recognizes that the Chinese Communist Party has a legitimacy problem at home and must undergo reforms for one-party rule to survive. The Peaceful Rise is essentially a way of seeking a soft landing for China's political system -- a global peace offering that masks the leadership's true intention of prolonging its grip on power by maintaining economic momentum.

Zheng's Peaceful Rise has met strong resistance from the Chinese Foreign Ministry as well as the People's Liberation Army. The former criticizes the effort as a self-indulgent pipe dream, while the latter attacks it for tying the military's hands in case Taiwan must be dealt with by force.

Strangely enough, it was the Americans who rescued Zheng's line from near extinction. Last September, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick officially embraced the Peaceful Rise in a major speech in which he also called on China to become a responsible "stakeholder" in global affairs. The term confused China's leaders; Zheng (along with some Washington think tankers) took it to mean that China would become an equal partner with the United States, while others interpreted it as a reference to gambling with high stakes. Either way, the U.S. policy elite appears divided on the Peaceful Rise. The neocons dismiss it as just another communist plot, whereas realists such as Zoellick seem happy to play along with the notion of Chinese self-restraint.

The Iraq war showed two sides of the West -- one Greek (Europe) and the other Roman (the United States). With the two increasingly split, China is finding space to restore its tradition, power and role in the world. The decline of America's global appeal means that the world is seeking ideas beyond the simplistic Bush model of "with us or against us." For Chinese leaders, politics needn't be a stark choice between dictatorship and democracy -- there can be alternatives that maintain diversity and multiculturalism. The European Union has already become a genuinely secular community in contrast to the religious trend in the United States; through its integration project, it has officially moved beyond the logics of good vs. evil or balance of power and hegemony. There is also no lack of eager audience for Chinese values in Latin America, which has been burned by the Western liberal model before.

Unfortunately, the task of explaining China to the world remains in the hands of propaganda chiefs such as Zheng who know very little about geopolitics. Their task is even called "external propaganda," hardly a promising starting point. Simply parroting vague foreign policy slogans will not produce a peaceful landing for the Chinese political system; to the contrary, China's current value-free foreign policy only reveals to the world that China has not developed a political and cultural message to go with its commercial clout.

If China insists on the validity of its own development model at home, it must effectively explain how the world can remain safe for all civilizations. China's leaders must prove -- rather than just assert -- that China's restoration will not produce an inevitable conflict with the superpower of the day.

xiang@hei.unige.ch

Lanxin Xiang is director of the China Center at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva.