Has China's superpower moment arrived?

Curtis Chin and Jose Collazo point to the day Beijing's influence resulted in Asean disarray

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 September, 2012, 5:15pm

Certain dates resonate for years. June 4 and September 11 are two examples. Yet others pass by with their significance unnoticed until years later, if at all. With hindsight, the world may well look back at July 13, 2012 as another defining moment - the date of modern China's true emergence as a regional power and player, if not quite yet a superpower by traditional definition.

That is the date the Association of Southeast Asian Nations foreign ministers failed - for the first time in the grouping's 45-year history - to issue a concluding communiqué to their annual summit. This followed efforts by the Philippines and Vietnam to have Asean more directly address China's increasing assertiveness over resource-rich areas of the South China Sea.

When exactly does a country become a "superpower"? As the colonial era of "great powers" and the British empire came to an end, the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the first superpowers. These large, nuclear-armed nations had, through a mix of political, military, economic and technological capabilities acquired the power to influence nations and protect their national interests abroad.

But can one look back at history and point to a specific "superpower moment"? Some point to the dropping of a US atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and the October 4, 1957 launch by the Soviet Union of the first artificial earth satellite - "Sputnik" - as superpower moments. One helped end a world war. Another launched the "space race". And in each case, a single nation's actions influenced the thoughts and actions of others.

Some pundits predict China will achieve superpower status in 20 to 30 years. But, living in Asia - particularly Southeast Asia - one gets the sense that countries in the region already see China as a super player, if not a superpower.

The failure on July 13 to issue what is typically a bland statement provoked anxieties about China's "peaceful rise". It also sidelined Asean's ability to negotiate as a cohesive unit over maritime claims, and underscored China's ability to influence actions beyond its borders.

China is already acknowledged as a nation wielding significant military, economic, political and cultural influence in much of Asia and the Pacific. Coming to terms with this should factor into long-term strategies in other countries.

July 13 will never dominate the headlines as much as September 11 or June 4. But, by some measures, "7/13" and its aftermath are also changing the region, if not the world, in countless ways.

Curtis S. Chin is a senior fellow and executive-in-residence at the Asian Institute of Technology. Jose B. Collazo is a frequent commentator on Southeast Asia