Right now, China’s behavior is troublesome but in a fairly non-ideological manner: they’re trying to maximize their advantage, sometimes at our expense. This is felt most acutely in the economic realm, which is why many liberals (like Paul Krugman) are crying foul. In the military/security realm there’s concern about China’s military build-up, but mostly in the context of how that impacts America’s heretofore unfettered freedom of access, not in the context of an imminent campaign of armed conquest throughout Asia.
In other words, China is behaving how many realists would expect a powerful state to behave. This doesn’t preclude conflict (obviously it potentially heightens the chances of conflict) but it does present something of a rub for the United States, especially for our politicians and our foreign policy punditry. We love ideological enemies. Revolutionary regimes – be they in Moscow or Tehran – excite us in a way that grubby, material-interest seeking states do not. This, I think, explains the rather flaccid attempts to date to dress up China’s fusion of authoritarianism and capitalism into some kind of looming ideological challenge to the U.S. Otherwise, China’s deal cutting with third world tyrants, its military investments, its economic agenda, just doesn’t pack that dramatic punch.