What defines a global "superpower"? In the past, it was the size of national armies or possession of nuclear weapons.
But now there is a more important (and peaceful) benchmark: the size and prestige of university systems.
And, while the US is still the global higher education "superpower", China will soon be knocking it off top spot if current trends continue.
This week, an international audience gathered in London for the Worldwide Universities Network conference, was given a dramatic insight into just how rapidly China is moving through the field in the higher education race.
It should be a wake-up call to universities and governments around the world. Moreover, it should be a sobering warning to those who decry the relatively modest ambitions of the British government to aim for 50% of young people having some experience of higher education.
Consider some of the facts. China is now the largest higher education system in the world: it awards more university degrees than the US and India combined.
Of course, this is partly a matter of the sheer size of its population. But it is not just that. The rate of university expansion has been beyond anything anyone in the West can easily imagine.
University enrolments in China have reportedly risen from under 10% of young people in 1999 to over 21% in 2006, a phenomenally fast expansion.
And this is not just a matter of packing in numbers on undergraduate courses. As recently as 1996, China produced just 5,000 PhD students a year. That was only about half the number in the UK, Japan or India. Since then, China has overtaken every other country in the world except the US in terms of the numbers of doctoral degrees awarded.
The numbers have risen to 34,000 in 2006 and, based on current enrolments, this will surge past 50,000 a year in just three or four years, at which point it will overtake the current world leader, the US.
This has been done by a conscious policy of investment in higher education. According to Dr John Turek, director of IBM's China Technology Institute, China was spending just 1% of GDP on higher education in 1998. Now the target figure for 2007 is 4%.
The Worldwide Universities' Network conference heard many of the facts about China's expansion from Professor Wei Yang, president of Zhejiang University, one of the country's largest with annual revenue of 440 million US dollars.
His message about China's rapid growth in undergraduate and postgraduate numbers, not to mention research projects and citations, will certainly remind British universities that it is a risky policy to rely too heavily on the fees from Chinese students coming to study here.
China remains the largest provider of overseas students to British campuses but it is now clear that the much lower costs, and rising prestige, of Chinese universities will make this a tougher market in future.
As David Eastwood, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, told the conference: "We cannot assume that students will continue to come to the UK just because they always have".
Cost is only part of the calculation. The UK and the US lead on overseas student recruitment, yet they are amongst the most expensive places in the world to study. So it seems fair to assume that quality remains the key.
And, for now, Britain can still rely on the top class ratings of its best universities. In the latest THES-QS world university rankings, the UK takes four of the top 10 places (Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial College, London, and University College London).
But as world competition increases, the UK takes only another four (Edinburgh, King's College, London, Manchester and Bristol) of the next 40 places.
Meanwhile China now has three universities in the top 100 plus another two if you include Hong Kong. Across Asia as a whole, the number of universities in the top 100 has risen to 13.
The importance of higher education to economic success is now increasingly recognised around the world. The recent Leitch Review, commissioned by Gordon Brown when he was chancellor, warned that UK skills levels are no longer world class.
The UK is in danger of slipping back. The latest OECD figures showed that in 2000 the UK was third in the world for the proportion of young people graduating from bachelor degrees.
By 2005, the UK had slipped to 10th. This was not because British graduation rates have fallen but because they have not risen as fast as elsewhere.
Nottingham University has tapped into the Chinese market and opened a campus there
Of course, the "superpower" analogy falls down in one important respect. While there is clearly an element of competition between individual universities, and national systems, the reality is that collaboration and co-operation are equally important for the health of universities.
To succeed, universities now need to be global in their approach. Some 70% of the top 200 ranked universities increased the proportion of both their international students and their international staff, according to the THES-QS figures.
It is estimated there are now about 2.8 million internationally mobile students. The trend for students to study abroad is growing. The numbers are up by over 50% since 1999.
British universities will need to have a genuinely international outlook, and the higher education system needs to keep growing, if we are to remain leading players on the world stage.
Being a genuinely global university does not mean packing in more and more overseas students just to benefit from the relatively high fees they pay; there are already signs that a growing number of international students feel they are not getting value for money at UK universities.
It does mean collaborating on international research projects, taking a genuinely global view of academic issues, and fully integrating domestic and overseas students and faculty.
The UK cannot, because of its size, be the world's higher education "superpower", but it could continue to punch well above its weight. But it is going to have to train even harder to stay in the ring.