On Thursday, July 1, China announced the launch of CNC World, a new global English-language TV network, to be available through satellite and on the Internet. Part of China’s official news agency, it is intended to project a China-friendly perspective on issues to the world – ostensibly to help outsiders understand China better.

To most analysts in the West, however, the launch of this network represents another sign of China’s growing prominence and confidence on the world stage – further evidence of its emerging status as the world’s next “superpower.” But is it really? A superpower is generally understood to be a nation, empire, or civilization that can project power globally; that is, a nation that possesses economic, political and cultural or “soft” power along with overwhelming military or “hard” power.

It’s certainly not hard to appreciate China’s emerging economic power.

Imagine if China suddenly ceased bankrolling the U.S. economy or threatened to rid itself of the almost $1 trillion in American treasury bonds it holds. The American greenback would collapse, precipitating a major world economic crisis.

China’s economic clout also provides a foundation for an increasingly assertive political and cultural posture – one that belies the characterization made by Susan Shirk, the former Clinton Administration advisor, of China’s leaders as fragile, vulnerable and insecure.

As James Mann, in the China Fantasy reminds us, China, through its leadership of the Shanghai Council is increasingly exerting both political and cultural influence in all central Asia countries as well as Russia and Iran. And its soft power influence is acknowledged by the world in countries as diverse as North Korea and Darfur.

This influence is becoming so pervasive that for Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World: the End of the Western World, there is little question that with U.S. power on the wane, China will be the next superpower. He maintains that the Chinese are ambitious, convinced they are culturally and racially superior to all non-Han peoples and will prevail over all others in this century.

It’s true that China is not quite a “hard power” of the Soviet Union Mark 2 variety, displaying a mass of military might. But then China does not need to do any sabre-rattling, or display state-of-the art missiles either bought or reverse engineered. Rather, the Chinese need only flaunt their economic, political and cultural (soft) power to prove their mettle.

Without the cost of military adventures, China has used soft power to bring virtually all of Southeast Asia under its economic sway. It is mainly the ethnic Chinese Han businesses that run all aspects of economic life in this highly developed area of the world – and this, at the expense of the dominant Muslims in Malaysia and Indonesia.

And look at what is quietly happening in Russia’s sparsely populated Far East; only 6 million people live in this back of beyond. The Siberian tundra and wasteland has gas, timber, oil, copper and gold. Southside live close to 140 million ethnic Han who peacefully trek north to lease land and set up shop, developing the infrastructure as they go. The Chinese are slowly populating Siberia the way they did in Tibet and Xinjiang. Roads and railroads and hospitals in Eastern Russia all get built in the most inhospitable of climes with the support of an increasingly ambivalent Medvedev and Vladimir Putin. Remember, parts of this territory once actually belonged to China.

Some might argue that it’s almost as if the Chinese leaders are asserting a Greater China Commonwealth, a Lebensraum (living space) for the Han.

And we cannot forget about Taiwan.

Today few think of an invasion by China militarily as imminent. For the Chinese, it is rapidly becoming a case of “why bother.” An economic, political and cultural invasion is doing the trick. For example, just last week, an epoch-making free-trade agreement was signed between mainland China and Taiwan, bringing soft-power diplomacy to its greatest height.

Not everyone agrees, of course, that a nation can be a superpower based on soft power alone. Writing for the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, Robert Kaplan reminds us that although China has a formidable armed forces, its sea power is weak. He argues that without consummate sea power, the country cannot claim superpower status.

He may be right, but even if this is the case today it may not remain the case for long. It is no secret any more that China is acquiring a blue-water navy. China has been testing American resolve by harassing and attempting to deny U.S. warships easy access to its coast. It has built underground submarine pens on Hainan Island, with missiles and listening posts. It is expected that in the near future, the Chinese could deploy a larger submarine force than the U.S., with advanced cyber-warfare capabilities and seabed sonar networks.

Is China emerging as the next superpower? When we look at the potential hard and soft power that China can yield now and in the future, there is much to suggest that it may very well do so. It’s an interesting question to consider. And many serious analysts are spending a lot of time doing just that.

Of even more interest, I think, is not the question of whether China will become a superpower, but rather what kind of a superpower China will be, if and when it becomes one.

– Miron Rezun teaches International Relations at UNB and has travelled in China. His latest book, Of Gadgets, Mice and Men (Governments and Their Spies) was published recently by DreamCatcher Publications of Saint John.