Last week, President Hu Jintao urged the Chinese Navy to accelerate its transformation and "make extended preparations for warfare." While perhaps unexceptional, the words caught the attention of the foreign media and that of China's neighbors, which generally do not have much of a navy to speak of. That is natural. The small fear the big and the weak fear the strong. That is the natural order of things, and the Chinese know it well.

Thus, when China set out in the 1970s on the road to modernization, its leader at the time, Deng Xiaoping, was keenly aware that an economically strong China would inevitably also be a military power and could be seen as a threat by other countries. That is why he repeatedly made assurances that China would never become a superpower and would "never seek hegemony."

In a speech to the United Nations in 1974, when Chairman Mao Zedong was still alive, Deng provided a definition of a superpower. "A superpower," he said, "is an imperialist country which everywhere subjects other countries to its aggression, interference, control, subversion or plunder and strives for world hegemony."