It’s no coincidence that America’s national anxiety about China has surfaced in tandem with our greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression

Conventional wisdom has long held that China is the most likely emergent superpower to rival US supremacy, but over the past few months, this fear — the West’s greatest since the Cold War — has gained a specific sense of urgency. In a recent poll by Foreign Policy magazine, 71% of thinkers picked China as the next global superpower, and Chinese president Hu Jintao as the world’s most crucial leader — aside from President Obama.

The new book When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Growth of a New Global Order, by British author Martin Jacques, argues that China will achieve global supremacy before the end of the century, but probably within the next 40 years. It wouldn’t be generating such buzz if it weren’t packed with the attendant nightmare scenarios — schoolkids everywhere learning Mandarin, for example. (Unsurprising caveat: Jacques is a former editor of the periodical Marxism Today.) Also: A 2005 report by the National Intelligence Council stated that China’s imminent rise was likely to have as much impact on the globe as that of Germany’s in the 19th century and America’s in the 20th — a notion perhaps more easily advanced in the wake of President Obama’s recent, inauspicious trip to China and the dismissive treatment shown him by China’s premier at Copenhagen.

It’s no coincidence that America’s national anxiety about China has surfaced in tandem with our greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression. Much-discussed is China’s robust economy (albeit state-owned, a key detail often glossed over), the amount of US debt they own, their status as the world’s leading manufacturer and exporter, their seeming imperviousness to the global financial crisis. And while these things are true, we are rarely reminded that China is still a poor nation — the average worker earns 1/8th a US citizen’s salary — and that reports out of China come from a censored, state-run media. This is the same week, after all, that Google announced they may shut down operations in China because of spying.

In short: China still lags far behind the US, both economically and militarily — the latter, too, an oft-overlooked point. It may not always be thus, but the US will remain the world’s lone superpower throughout our new century.

“China is still in kindergarten compared to the US,” says Charles Freeman, chair in China studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former chief trade negotiator to China under President George W. Bush. “The US still has 25%-28% of global output; China has less than 7%. People say China’s our banker, that they’re holding all our debt; really, China holds less than 10%. Our ability to take power to people, by land or sea — China is so dwarfed it’s not even funny.”

The US spent $552 billion on military spending in 2008, compared to $46-$100 billion by China. We have 11 aircraft carriers; they are building their first. We have 7-8,000 nuclear warheads; China has a few hundred. They are about to be faced, thanks to their one-child rule, with hundreds of millions of elderly supported by far fewer young workers.

“People are projecting a possible future back to the present,” says Steve West, professor of International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “They are looking at China’s remarkable growth over the past 20 years — but China, like all developing countries, is going to face declining growth over time. It’s the simple law of diminishing returns.”

Dr. Joseph Nye, professor at the Harvard School of Government and one of the most influential foreign policy thinkers in the US, calls the hype about China “extraordinary.” He thinks that America is going through a cycle of “declinism,” similar to fears that Russia was leaping ahead of the US post-Sputnik, or fears that Japan would outstrip us economically in the ’80s. And, like those times, the fears are overblown. “We’ve had a bad decade: two wars, an economic crisis,” he says. “Americans are pessimistic again.”

– Maureen Callahan