(CNN) — China is now synonymous with the term “emerging” superpower — almost every reference to the country makes some mention of its future global prowess, both economic and military.
But while few question China’s rise and its existing might, when will we be able to drop the “emerging” tag and simply refer to the country as a superpower — much like the U.S. is perceived today?
Already a significant regional power in Asia — only India and Japan offer any kind of credible competition — China is already increasing its global influence with its economic policies in Africa, Latin America and Europe, according to analysts.
But many experts believe that for a country to become a true global power, it needs both unrivalled economic and military dominance.
Lawrence Saez, senior lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies, in London, says: “When China decides to take over Taiwan, that is when it will be a superpower. Unquestionably that will be the day.”
China regards Taiwan as part of its territory. It has vowed to use force against the island if it ever formally sought independence.
“The tipping point is military, to have the ability to threaten your neighbors, threaten military action without the threat of challenge. China knows it would lose a war with the U.S. today,” adds Saez, who thinks China will overtake the U.S. as a military superpower within the next 20 years.
Alexander Neill, senior Asia research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a London-based thinktank, says: “When it can truly challenge the U.S. (militarily), that is the day it will become a global superpower… a military with global reach, the ability to deploy around the world and defend its interests.
When it can truly challenge the U.S. (militarily), that is the day (China) it will become a global superpower
–Alexander Neill, senior Asia research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute
China’s top military leaders have denied their country is seeking to become a military superpower; in early May Gen. Chen Bingde said America’s armed forces remained far more advanced than China’s. China has no intention to match U.S. military power, he said.
Just this week the Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie said: “To judge whether a country is a threat to world peace the key is not to look at how strong its economy or military is, but the policy it pursues.”
However, many experts don’t take such statements at face value, pointing to a rapidly growing defense budget and advanced defense projects.
China officially spent about $80 billion on its defense in 2010 — but unofficially others put it much higher. The U.S. Defense Department estimates China’s military spending at closer to $150 billion per annum and escalating. The U.S. spent $729 billion on defense in 2010.
This week the head of China’s General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is reported by the Chinese-language Hong Kong Commercial Daily to have confirmed that China’s first aircraft carrier is under construction.
The carrier is 300 meters (990 feet) in length and recent satellite photographs taken by Google Earth show it moored at the port of Dalian in northeast China.
And in December last year images and videos of China’s latest generation fighter, dubbed the J-20, surfaced on the web.
Analysts believe the J-20 stealth fighter will have the radar-evading capability of fifth-generation fighters produced by the U.S., like the F-22 and F-35.
The jet is expected to be operational by 2017, although analysts believe China has the potential to deploy the fighter at an earlier date using a less-powerful engine than the one currently in development.
But military prowess is not the only — or necessarily the most important — component of superpower status.
Joseph S. Nye, a professor at Harvard, recently wrote for CNN, “In the 21st Century, military power will not have the same utility for states that it had in the 19th and 20th Centuries, but it will remain a crucial component of power in world politics.”
Although it is emerging as a military power, China is already an economic superpower, say experts like Saez.
According to at least one estimate, China’s economy will surpass that of the U.S. by 2021.
Yao Yang, Director of the China Center for Economic Reform at Peking University, recently told CNN: “Assuming that the Chinese and U.S. economies grow, respectively, by 8% and 3% in real terms, that China’s inflation rate is 3.6% and America’s is 2% (the averages of the last decade), and that the renminbi appreciates against the dollar by 3% per year (the average of the last six years), China would become the world’s largest economy by 2021. By that time, both countries’ GDP will be about $24 trillion.