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This commentary first appeared in Forbes.

A remarkable 44% of Americans believe China is the world's leading economic power and only 27% think the U.S. is, according to a recent survey by the Pew Center. James Fallows, the Atlantic Monthly journalist, thinks that is proof that Americans have lost their minds. He argues that China can't be the world's leading economic power. Too many of its people live without indoor plumbing, no mainland science researcher has won a Nobel Prize and the country has no global brands. How can a place like that be an economic superpower?

The normally adroit Fallows surprisingly misses the real point. China already is a superpower in many regards. Despite its poverty, no matter what industry you're in or where in the world you operate, you can no longer ignore China's economic might. That is power.

Here are three trends to look for in 2010 that demonstrate China's superpower status:

First, China is wielding national influence in places it never affected before. Over the last several decades it provided an ideological counterpoint to the United States, doing business in its push for oil with unsavory regimes like Iran and Sudan that democracies traditionally wouldn't work with. Now China is gaining influence with America's closest allies, too. During the financial crisis it doled out billions in contracts in Great Britain and France. This year it surpassed the U.S. to become the largest trading partner of both Japan and Brazil. It conducts more than $100 billion a year in trade with both the Middle East and Africa. In Africa it is laying down highways and other infrastructure projects. Already 750,000 Chinese workers have moved there.

Premier Wen Jiabao and the World Bank are even discussing ways to move textile factories from southern China to Africa. China's factories just might lift up Africa as no Western aid money has ever been able to do.

Look for Chinese companies to buy not just access to commodities but also Western brands, like Volvo and Hummer. Building brands takes decades. That's why so few Chinese brands have emerged globally. Chinese firms have traditionally focused on competing on price, but that's changing fast as they learn about marketing. Aggressive, impatient Chinese businesses don't want to take decades to build brands the way Toyota (NYSE:TM) and Sony (NYSE:SNE) did so they're looking to buy them from the West instead.

My firm, the China Market Research Group, interviewed 500 senior executives at 100 Chinese companies in 10 industries. Seventy percent of them told us they planned to use the downturn to speed up their international expansion, using both acquisitions and organic growth. They specifically aimed to tap into the U.S. and Western Europe with their cash wealth.

The second trend that shows that China is an established superpower, not just a rising one, is its emergence as a hotbed of innovation. Many analysts believe that the Chinese are good at copying but not at innovating. That's just not true anymore.

The country has become the main recipient of venture capital money in clean technology. The government is trying to address soaring health care costs by reducing pollution and is actively encouraging foreign investment to do so, as I wrote in "China Is Pulling Ahead On The Environment." It is spending $9 billion a month on clean energy research, and within five years it will become the world's largest producer of solar and wind energy. Most rural homes already heat water using solar panels on their roofs, and China is now exporting its wind power technology to the U.S. Its technology is being used to build a 36,000-acre wind farm in Texas.

At the same time, Chinese people living in the U.S. have been increasingly moving back to China, driven by the bad economy and visa hassles that arose from Bush administration policies. More than 1.5 million Chinese have studied abroad. Those who went to the U.S. in the 1980s and mid-1990s tended to stay, and they helped drive Silicon Valley's growth. Now most are moving back to China, and many are taking their companies public on NASDAQ. Robin Li, the founder of Baidu (NASDAQ:BIDU), and James Jianzhang Liang and Neil Shen, the co-founders of Ctrip (NASDAQ:CTRP), which is listed on NASDAQ, all studied abroad before returning to China.

The third trend: Not only is China becoming ever more powerful economically; it is also starting to exert its political power more responsibly. Although it has been a bit combative on climate and carbon emissions at the Copenhagen conference, it has taken a leading role among the G-20 group of nations in helping push for effective responses to the world financial crisis. Partly because China is crucial to the world economy, G-20 is formally replacing G-8 as the main economic meeting of wealthy nations. Also China has become the key broker with North Korea in attempts to make that country less belligerent, and it will bring greater influence to bear in political discussions in the years ahead.

China is certainly not altogether as wealthy as the U.S. or Japan, as Fallows correctly observes. But it is emerging confident and relatively unscathed from the financial crisis. Some 80% of people living in China told us they were optimistic about their futures. At the same time, the unemployment rate in the U.S. is still far too high, and Japan has not only one of the world's highest per capita gross domestic products but also one of the highest suicide rates, with more than 30,000 citizens killing themselves in each of the past 10 years. The traditional powers aren't the dominant forces they once were, economically or otherwise.

People have been talking for years about China as an emerging global power. The reality is that in many ways it is now fully emerged. Growing economic strength begets power.

Disclosure: None

Source: Yes, China Has Fully Arrived as a Superpower