Washington may be cordially welcoming Chinese President Hu Jintao to town this week, but it does so against a backdrop of American anxiety about China's rise that has rarely been so intense. In addition to long-running fears about U.S. debt holdings and currency controls, American pundits and policymakers now fret about China's educational prowess, military technology, and geopolitical ambitions.
Among the newest worries is the fear that China is poised to beat the United States in what many have claimed is the premier technological competition of the early 21st century: the race to develop and manufacture the clean energy technologies that will power the post-fossil-fuel world. "I am more convinced than ever that when historians look back at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, they will say that the most important thing to happen was not the Great Recession, but China's Green Leap Forward," New York Times columnist Tom Friedman wrote last week. Energy Secretary Steven Chu recently devoted an entire speech, complete with frightening PowerPoint slides, to the Chinese juggernaut, declaring China's rapid clean energy advances a "Sputnik moment" and calling on the United States to respond.
These warnings are grossly overblown. China is not crushing the United States in a clean energy race. And this myth isn't merely wrong -- it is also dangerous. Unwarranted fears of a clean energy competition threaten to spur a protectionist wave in the United States while squelching cooperation between the two countries -- all of which will make it much tougher to develop the robust clean energy economy that the world needs.