Henry Kissinger was talking about political competition. The US did compete with Europe in technology and interacted non-competitively even more. Samuel Colt visited capitals of Europe, I believe including Moscow, to convince gevernments to buy his weapons, rather than European ones, for their armed forces. Dixie cotton was the main input to British fabric factories before the Civil War, and there was intense lobbying from the cloth industry for Palmerston, the British PM, to recognize the CSA.
But generally I agree with you, the regional competition theory is weak. The Confucianism explanation, combined with the Manchu contempt for commerce, sounds much better to me.