Chinese President Hu Jintao is coming to Washington amid much gnashing of teeth over whether Chinese power is growing as U.S. might wanes.
The Chinese military clearly feels empowered. Beijing has gotten more aggressive with Japan and Southeast Asian nations over claims to disputed territory. China has also failed to rein in its ally, nuclear-armed North Korea, whose bizarre behavior threatens the region.
Moreover, just before Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates arrived in Beijing last week in hopes of improving ties with Chinese military officials, China test-flew a stealth fighter jet, clearly proclaiming its new muscle.
Yet, if we are concerned about competition from China, we should look beyond Beijing's growing military - and economic - might. Far better to focus on China's progress, and our lag, in educating our future workforce. That's where the real Chinese challenge lies.
After all, despite China's military growth, its Asian overreach is pushing its neighbors to ally more closely with Washington. And despite the current recession, the U.S. economy is still powerful and innovative. But we are failing to produce the educated manpower we need to compete in a globalized world.
Consider this: In 2009, a representative sample of students from Shanghai outscored their counterparts from 65 countries in reading, math, and science in a respected test given by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an organization of the world's 34 leading industrial powers. The United States scored 17th in reading, 29th in math, and 23d in science.
"We have to see this as a wake-up call," Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told the New York Times.
True, there are problems in comparing a cross section of 15-year-olds from China's most highly developed city, population 20 million, with broader samples from other entire countries, including the United States. Yet the results - which OECD administrators say they believe were legitimate - should still jolt us. They reflect a Chinese culture of education that stresses long classroom hours and far less time spent on extracurricular activities.
If the Chinese can produce these results in Shanghai, it's obvious they can reproduce them in many more cities in coming decades.
I saw the product of China's educational drive when I spoke with students in May on the campus of Beijing's Tsinghua University - the Chinese equivalent of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Among them were a future biologist, economist, journalist, and engineer.
What struck me was their self-confidence and optimism, and their awareness of the world. They all spoke excellent English; some wanted to do graduate work in the United States, but all said they would return home for their careers.
These students saw education as a path to wealth in China's materialistic society. But many also said they studied to fulfill the expectations of their parents, who had sacrificed much to put them through school and university. They saw this as a filial duty in a culture that traditionally has put a high value on education.
Their words made me recall my experience teaching at a Philadelphia-area university. My Asian and Asian American students seemed the most driven to get A's.
The Chinese model, which produces stressed-out students and still involves much rote learning, may not fit here. But its rigor provides a sharp contrast to a U.S. system that is failing to produce the educated workforce we need to compete globally.
"A generation ago," Duncan writes in Foreign Affairs, "the United States had the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. Now, it ranks fifth among developed nations and is tied for ninth . . . among those aged 25-34."
The statistics for high school education are even more dismal: About one-fourth of U.S. ninth graders fail to graduate secondary school within four years, Duncan says. Among the 34 OECD countries, only Mexico, Spain, Turkey, and New Zealand have higher dropout rates than the United States does.
And when it comes to fluency in foreign languages - which is vital for a globally competitive workforce - the U.S. system is a loser. In Europe, students start learning foreign languages in kindergarten. As for China, some studies project it will soon have the largest number of English speakers in the world among its population, if India doesn't get there first.
Of course, the United States has many excellent public and private high schools, and still has the world's best universities. But economic pressures are driving our cities and states to slash budgets for schools and colleges, just as China pours funds into its universities to make them world-class and draw the best talent from abroad.
And it gets worse. This year, says Duncan, China will award more doctorates in engineering and the sciences than any other country. Until this year, that distinction was held by the United States.
So, when Hu visits Washington, members of Congress should focus at least as much on China's brainpower as on its military power. If they want to compete with Beijing, they should consider the funding of math, science, and language teaching, and of basic research at universities, to be as important as funding military hardware.
And they, along with President Obama, should come up with new ways to inspire students and parents about the value of education. Chinese parents and students revere education in a way that too many of our adults and young people no longer do.
"Fifty years later, our generation's Sputnik moment is back," President Obama told a college audience in North Carolina in December, referring to the Soviet Union's surprise 1957 launching of a satellite that spurred an explosion of U.S. investment in math and science teaching. This is a theme he probably will stress in his State of the Union address.
Yet too few Americans remember Sputnik, which occurred when the country was still able to unite around common goals. And fewer still are familiar with those shocking OECD stats about Shanghai.
Those figures should jolt us. The nations with the best-educated workers will lead the global economy. China gets it. Obama gets it. But unless Congress and the rest of us get it, China will roll past us no matter how many missiles we build.
Inquirer foreign affairs columnist Trudy Rubin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.