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Tuesday, Sep. 11, 2012

Tracking China to its 'superpower moment'

Special to The Japan Times

NEW YORK — Eleven years ago today, some two dozen Japanese citizens were among the nearly 3,000 people killed in the terrorist attacks that brought down the World Trade Center. The date is now immortalized as "9/11," and its aftermath has changed the world in countless ways.

Many Asian nations were among the some 60 countries who lost citizens that day: By some counts, nearly 30 from South Korea died, some two dozen from Southeast Asia and a handful from China. While that date and others live on in people's memories, other days pass by with their significance unnoticed until years later.

With the benefit of hindsight, the world may well look back and take note of July 13, 2012, as another defining moment — the date of China's true emergence as a regional power and player, if not quite a superpower by traditional definitions.

Newspaper headlines continue to document ongoing territorial disputes between Japan and South Korea, as well as among Japan, South Korea and China. Friday, July 13, was different, bringing attention to China's growing influence and the potential for conflict and to new challenges to peace and prosperity in Southeast Asia.

On July 13, for the first time, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers failed to agree on a joint statement to conclude their annual summit. With diplomatic understatement, ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan reportedly described the unprecedented failure as "very disappointing." The Philippines and Vietnam more openly took on the "elephant in the room," namely China's increasing assertiveness over resources-rich areas of the South China Sea.

Which raised the question: At what point does a country become a "superpower," and has China reached that point?

As empires and the era of the "great powers" came to an end after World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the first superpowers. These were large, nuclear-armed nations that had a thorough mix of political, military, economic and technological capabilities, projected power, and influenced nations around the world while protecting their national interests abroad.

Can one look back at history and point to a specific date or incident when a nation signaled its ascent into an elite group of powers? Or, is there a "superpower moment" that forces others to change behavior and perceptions about a country and pushes nations to acknowledge new power relationships?

These moments may make headlines, grab our attention and, at some level, ignite anxieties as we seek to attach meaning and significance to them.

With regard to the U.S., some point to its dropping of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945 (Japan time) as a "superpower moment." Japan's surrender to the Allied powers followed, bringing World War II to a close and underscoring U.S. technological and military superiority.

Aug. 6 might well also have changed the Soviet Union's thoughts about U.S. global intentions, altering international relations and ushering in the Cold War.

One can argue that the Soviet Union's superpower moment occurred Oct. 4, 1957, when it launched "Sputnik" — the first artificial earth satellite.

Fearing the Soviets would militarize space, the U.S. responded by accelerating its own space program. The "Space Race" was on, culminating in the U.S. lunar landings. Once again, one nation's actions influenced the thoughts and actions of others, as superpowers do.

We now talk about the emergence of new superpowers, with India and, of course, China as candidates. Do an Internet search of "China" and "superpower," and several million results come up, with many predicting China's achieving superpower status in two to three decades.

But by living in Asia — particularly Southeast Asia — one gets the sense that countries here already see China as a superpower. China after all has replaced Japan as the second-largest economy in the world, behind the U.S.

Now look a little more closely at what occurred at the 45th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in July in Phnom Penh. By some accounts, China's behind-the-scenes influence resulted in summit host Cambodia's preventing a joint statement that might have included any mention of the Philippines' and Vietnam's competing claims in the South China Sea.

Such claims, it was argued, are strictly bilateral issues and not ASEAN's concern. Cambodia, as many noted, is also a major recipient of Chinese economic and development assistance.

The failure July 13 to issue what is typically a bland, joint statement grabbed headlines, made people take notice and provoked anxieties about China's "peaceful rise." It also sidelined ASEAN's ability to negotiate as a cohesive unit with China over maritime claims, and underscored China's ability to influence actions beyond its borders. So, in retrospect, was this China's "superpower moment" — when soft diplomacy gave way to hard-power tactics?

If it is, it highlights the different perspectives that some in the West and in Southeast Asia have about China. Regardless of superpower criteria or defining dates, China is already acknowledged, if not fully accepted, as a nation wielding significant military, economic, political and cultural influence well beyond its own shores — in much of Asia and the Pacific.

Coming to terms with this helps capture the reality of what is occurring in the region, and should factor into not just Japan's but any nation's long-term thinking and commercial and diplomatic engagement.

There is no 20- to 30-year time frame. This is occurring now, and it will be critical for the world to adjust.

July 13 will understandably never dominate the headlines as much as the annual commemorations for 9/11, but by some measures, the date 7/13 and its aftermath are also changing the region, if not the world, in countless ways.

Curtis S. Chin, a senior fellow and executive-in-residence at the Asian Institute of Technology, served as U.S. ambassador to Asian Development Bank (2007-2010). Jose B. Collazo is a frequent commentator on Southeast Asia. Follow him on Twitter: @josebcollazo.

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