Friday, September 7, 2012

July 13 May Prove to Be the Date When China Came of Age as a Genuine Global Superpower

There are still several weeks to go before the anniversary of the Oct. 12, 2002, Bali bombings that brought death and destruction to the streets of Kuta, killing 202 people.

In New York, memories still haunt visitors to the National September 11 Memorial, where the names of nearly 3,000 victims — including some 150 from the Asia-Pacific region — are inscribed into bronze parapets surrounding twin memorial pools in the footprints of the destroyed World Trade Center towers.

Eleven years ago this month, the date “9/11” was seared into people’s memories. That day, and its aftermath, changed the world in countless ways.

Numerous Asian countries lost citizens that day. Nearly 50 from India died, as did some two dozen from Japan, and nearly two dozen from Southeast Asia, many of them Filipino.

Just 13 months later, 38 Indonesians would be among those who lost their lives in Bali.”

Yet, while these dates and others — birthdays, anniversaries and deaths of loved ones — live on in people’s memories, other days pass by with their significance unnoticed until years later, if at all.

With the benefit of hindsight, the world may well look back at July 13, 2012, as another defining moment in time — the date of China’s true emergence as a regional power, if not quite yet a superpower by traditional definitions. That date certainly was noticed in Jakarta, at the secretariat of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

On July 13, for the first time in history, an Asean summit of foreign ministers ended without its usual joint communique following an unsuccessful effort by Vietnam and the Philippines to forge a strong statement on China’s increasing assertiveness over the resource-rich area of the South China Sea.

With diplomatic understatement, Asean Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan described the unprecedented failure at the Phnom Penh meeting as “very disappointing.”

When exactly does a country become a “superpower,” and has China reached that point? As empires and the colonial era of the “great powers” came to an end with World War II and the struggles for independence that followed, the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the first superpowers.

These were large, nuclear-armed nations that had through a mix of political, military, economic and technological capabilities, projected power, defended their national interests and influenced nations around the world.

Can one look back at history and point to a specific date or incident when a nation ascends into an elite group of powers? Is there, so to speak, 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.

One can argue that the Soviet Union’s superpower moment occurred on Oct. 4, 1957, when it launched “Sputnik” — the first artificial earth satellite. Fearing the Soviets would militarize space, the United States responded by accelerating its own space program.

The “Space Race” was on, culminating in the US 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. Conduct an Internet search of “China” and “superpower” and several million results come up, with many people predicting China will achieve superpower status within 30 years.

But living in Asia — particularly Southeast Asia — one senses that countries here already see China as a superpower.

Look more closely at what happened at that July Asean meeting. By some accounts, China’s behind-the-scenes influence resulted in summit host Cambodia stopping a joint statement that might have included any mention of the Philippines’ and Vietnam’s competing claims with China 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 that July 13 to issue what is typically a nondescript, joint statement grabbed headlines, made people take notice and provoked anxieties about China’s “peaceful rise.”

The so-called “Phnom Penh incident” 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.

In retrospect, was this China’s “superpower moment”?

If it is, it highlights the difference in perspective that some in the West and in Southeast Asia have about China. Regardless of superpower definitions, China is already acknowledged 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 the long-term thinking and commercial and diplomatic engagement of not just Indonesia, but any nation.

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

July 13 will understandably never grab the headlines in the way the annual commemorations of Sept. 11 or the Bali bombings, but by some measures, the date “7/13” and its aftermath are already 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. He served as US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank from 2007 to 2010. Jose B. Collazo is a commentator on Southeast Asia

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