President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Andy Wong/AP)
Columnist

The Chinese government would like Americans to know that China has no ambitions to replace the United States as the world's biggest superpower.

Really! They pinkie-swear!

Sure, maybe the United States has turned its back on globalization. Maybe the U.S. government has said it will withdraw from a 195-country pact on climate change. Maybe it has hollowed out its diplomatic corps and retreated from the international promotion of democracy, human rights and other American values.

Likewise maybe, days before President Trump took office, Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a major speech portraying China as the world's new champion of free trade. Maybe China has also been flexing its geopolitical muscle by developing major infrastructure projects across multiple continents.

Xi may have said, at his party's recent national congress, that China has taken a "driving seat in international cooperation to respond to climate change" and that China was now "moving closer to center stage."

And perhaps public opinion elsewhere views this sashay to "center stage" positively. China and the United States are now tied in favorability ratings around the world, with the typical country expressing more confidence in Xi than in Trump to do the right thing, per a recent Pew Research Center survey.

But none of that means China intends to fill the power void created by the United States' retrenchment. Oh, no.

Some people merely "misinterpret" such recent developments as China's attempts to dislodge the United States from its unipolar power perch. "That is a misunderstanding," a senior Chinese government official told a group of American journalists here on a trip sponsored by the Asia Society. China just wants all countries to be equal.

"We do not believe that any country should assume leadership in the world, least of all China," he said. "China has neither the intention nor the capability to act as a world leader."

He stated near-identical versions of that last, emphatic sentence three times during an hour-long discussion.

Government officials have in fact been issuing similar assurances for years, whenever Sino-panic flares up in the United States. One of China's central conundrums has been how to "peacefully rise" without freaking out Americans, particularly since U.S. politicians do adore a good red scare.

But lately, China has especially strong motivation to convince us of its superpowerlessness.

Despite an apparently warm relationship between Trump and Xi, in the past two weeks alone, the United States has filed a brief with the World Trade Organization opposing China's designation as a market economy, a move Chinese state media calls "selfish" and "protectionist"; launched a probe into China's alleged aluminum dumping; and announced a halt to bilateral trade talks with Beijing.

A forthcoming Trump administration report is expected to name China's economic policy as one of America's biggest security threats.

And meanwhile, the U.S. government clearly views China as having sufficient clout to force North Korea to halt its nuclear program — influence the Chinese government would prefer Americans not assume it has.

Again and again, this Chinese official sought to impress upon his American guests that China is not a threat. "China is not the Soviet Union," he said. Later: "Recent comments and actions advocating a stronger line against China we believe are a sign of an outdated Cold War mentality."

Of course, a cynic or Sinophobe might hear in China's deflections and self-deprecations Deng Xiaoping's famous dictum to "hide your strength, bide your time."

But many Chinese do see their country as an underdog of sorts, albeit one on the upswing.

While the Chinese economy is now second-largest in the world, that looks significantly less impressive when you adjust for its massive population. Gross domestic product per capita is about $17,000 . More than 40 million people still live on less than a dollar a day.

Rising wealth also means that the Chinese public may increasingly view their country as a resurgent power and expect it to start acting like one — that is — to become more assertive in its dealings with big bad American bullies. The Chinese government must walk a fine line between appeasing these nationalistic impulses (hence Xi's carefully calibrated "center stage" line) and simultaneously assuring the United States that it is not a serious rival.

Which explains why this official took pains to let us know his government has no desire to export the "so-called China model."

Looking at Washington lately, however, one has to wonder: To the extent that the "China model" means wielding economic influence without ever nagging anyone about pesky democratic values, maybe this export has already done better than China ever intended.