BEIJING -- When you play with fireworks, there is no big shock in seeing them explode. The surprise comes when you light one, toss it and nothing happens.
Over the last decade, that's been the story of the United States and China. Despite plenty of gunpowder and matches, detonation has failed to occur.
For a long time, Americans have seen the Chinese as a security threat, and not without reason. We fought each other in the Korean War -- known here as "The War of Resisting America" -- and China helped the enemy bring us to ruin in Vietnam.
Mao Tse-tung's Communist regime offered guns and encouragement to "liberation movements" around the globe. Even in the 1990s, after he was gone, neoconservatives foresaw a new Cold War with an emboldened Beijing eager to settle old scores.
It's not hard to see why China can trigger cold sweats. After three decades of rapid growth, it now boasts the third biggest economy on earth. It is ruled by an authoritarian regime with a bad human rights record.
As anyone who watched the opening ceremony of the 2008 summer Olympics can attest, the country possesses an unnerving capacity to marshal its manpower for a specific goal. With 1.3 billion people, China brings to mind the comment attributed to Joseph Stalin: "Sometimes, quantity has a quality all its own."
Of more specific concern is that China has greatly enlarged its military budget, which now exceeds $100 billion a year. It has been suspected of hacking into Pentagon computers.
China makes no secret that it is constantly preparing for a possible war with us over Taiwan. And there are those recent incidents when Chinese ships harassed American surveillance vessels in international waters, which looked like a deliberate test of our new president.
China is definitely a force to be reckoned with -- but not one to be overstated. Even today, it spends less than a quarter of what the United States lavishes on defense. It still lacks even a single aircraft carrier, the essential instrument for projecting offshore power.
Preparing for the possibility of war with America is not the same thing as wanting or pursuing it. It may just be an act of prudence. One consequence of being a messianic superpower is that we make some countries fear winding up on our list of targets.
China's buildup doesn't really look suspicious for a nation encircled by historical adversaries -- Russia, India and Vietnam -- as well as two unstable nuclear powers, Pakistan and North Korea. Or for a country just two generations removed from an invasion by Imperial Japan. After all, we spend more on defense than the rest of the world combined, even though our enemies are all half a world away.
Most if not all of China's military efforts would no doubt be going on even if we didn't exist. It is behaving like a normal rising power -- not the sort of ideologically driven, expansionist state represented by the old Soviet Union.
But, of course, even normal rising powers can precipitate conflict with established ones as they demand more respect and a bigger role in the world. Yet so far this one has seemed to make an effort to avoid being disruptive.
Once an avowed enemy of the international order, China has joined the World Trade Organization, sent peacekeeping forces to African countries, cultivated closer ties with Taiwan and tried to help us divert North Korea from the nuclear path. Lately, it's sent ships to combat piracy off the coast of Somalia.
Zhang Xiaoming, a professor at Peking University's School of International Studies, told me and other visiting journalists, "China wants to be a status quo power, not a revolutionary power." The country's rulers say the same thing. A white paper published last year declared, "China pursues a national defense policy which is purely defensive in nature."
Prudent people will not take such declarations on faith no matter what government makes them. But in this case, there is no visible gap between Beijing's rhetoric and its conduct. So maybe they mean what they say.
For the most part -- not always, but usually -- the Chinese have behaved as though they think a country can best assure its prosperity and security through caution, restraint, multilateral cooperation and a sense of the limits of military might.
No wonder people in Washington are baffled.