05/19/2014 09:44 am ET Updated May 19, 2014

Middle Kingdom In The Middle

PETER PARKS via Getty Images

BEIJING -- Vladimir Putin is coming to China this week. So is Ban Ki-Moon, the secretary general of the United Nations. Not to mention Hassan Rouhani, the president of Iran.

Shanghai is the place to be. But does it know where it's going?

Elsewhere in the vicinity, unplanned events are also making news. China is evacuating thousands of its nationals from Vietnam, where they have become targets of attacks after China moved its largest drilling rig into a stretch of the South China Sea that Vietnam regards as its own.

Experts I spoke with here said they see the “hand” of President Barack Obama -- he of the “pivot” to Asia -- behind growing resource disputes with Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines over who gets to drill and fish where in nearby seas.

The sense of flux at home is equally compelling. A leading poll taker in the country, Victor Yuan, says that Chinese millennials -- born after the Cultural Revolution and an era of constant war -- are both intensely nationalistic and uniquely (by Chinese standards) individualistic.

“They don’t accept authority,” he said, “from the government, from their own family, from society as a whole.”

That attitude, in turn, threatens centuries-old social habits in China, which has for eons depended on family ties, respect for elders, and a Confucian sense of community to keep the society together when its political system periodically collapsed.

First impressions matter, and mine -- on my first visit since 1997 -- is of the oldest and in many ways most remarkable, successful culture and country on earth rising in power and wealth, yet having no idea whatsoever of where it is headed.

It has been centuries since the Chinese felt so powerful -- but also so besieged and confused about where their nation fits into the world order. Here in China, they substitute bragging about bigness for a sense of direction. The people, who love moments of demarcation, are obsessed with figuring out the exact moment when their country’s economy will overtake that of the United States in size. Size matters, but can it tell us about China’s place in the world, and what does it mean to be a citizen of China in the 21st century?

China has never been an expansionist power in the Western sense, but its economic and energy needs are turning it into one. Experts here say that within 10 years, China will consume more than 20 percent of the world’s energy resources. And you don’t lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty -- as China has done in the last 30 years -- without causing havoc somewhere.

China’s Asian neighbors, at turns respectful and resentful of the Middle Kingdom, are becoming more fearful even as they become more dependent on Chinese capital and markets. It doesn’t take any cheerleading or scheming by President Obama to turn the other countries in the neighborhood wary.

But when it comes to asserting its dominance, I believe the experts I met here, who said that the last thing that China wants is war -- if for no other reason than after decades of a one-child policy, every Chinese mother has become a silent but dedicated anti-war activist.

“Those mothers don’t want their only sons to go to war,” said Huiyao Wang, the vice chairman of the Western Returned Scholars Association.

At first glance, the alternative to the politically troublesome exploitation of the oil and gas beneath the South China Sea is to rely more heavily on energy resources from Russia. That is why the Chinese will roll out the red carpet -- cautiously -- for the Russian president when he arrives on Tuesday. The expectation is that he and President Xi Jinping will announce a big natural gas deal, one that will lessen Russian dependence on European markets.

But China needs energy from both Russia and the South China Sea -- and elsewhere, too. It needs new sea routes and allies, and will increasingly have to play a role that it has shunned for millennia: aggressive global power.

According to pollster Yuan, young Chinese citizens are eager to see their country take on a more assertive role in the world.

“They are very nationalistic,” he said. They are eager to criticize Japan -- a historic antagonist -- and even respond positively to military generals ranting on TV about the need to build up China's power.

But do these youths know the implications of what they are cheerleading for? Are they serious?

Experts here told me that the government is wary of doing too much to encourage nationalist sentiment among the young, lest it get them too excited and emotional about politics. So bellicose statements for world domination aside, the state-controlled Chinese media are not busy whipping up anti-Vietnamese sentiment at home.

The ruling Communist Party -- now renamed “The Party in Power” -- prefers that young people not think about politics at all. And most don’t, according to Yuan.

In fact, a new militarism could run smack into the new generation’s very un-Chinese sense of individual autonomy. It is more distant, experts say, than any previous generation from a sense of family destiny and communal obligation.

The younger Chinese generation knows that it is headed somewhere important; they just don’t know where that actually is, or quite how to get there.