In the battle for global dominance, all eyes are on China and the United States.
With a new decade of competition looming, Washington is pushing back hard against Beijing across a range of fronts, including trade, military and diplomatic matters.
For some the tensions are reminiscent of the Cold War, the almost 50-year conflict between the Soviet Union and the US which defined much of the 20th century.
But this is not the Cold War – and the People’s Republic of China is not the USSR.
An economic juggernaut
Three decades after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, China is now richer and more stable than its powerful communist predecessor ever was – giving it enormous global sway.
In fact, China’s economy is expected to overtake the US by most economic measures by 2030, according to Herve Lemahieu, director of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute Asian Power and Diplomacy Program.
A lot of this success is down to a reinterpretation of traditional ideology. Since the death of founder Mao Zedong in 1976, the ruling Communist Party has slowly moved to embrace aspects of capitalism, in an ideological construct known locally as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
Rather than ending up an anachronism of an outdated communist system, China’s planned economy has been used to dramatically bolster state-owned enterprises, now some of the largest companies in the world.
“The Soviet Union focused on their military and the economy was almost an afterthought. The Soviet economy was almost entirely focused on their military,” said Carl Schuster, a former director of operations with the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, who worked as a Soviet military expert for the US Navy during the Cold War.
China has tried to avoid falling into a trap of rapid, unsustainable military growth. While it has still steadily grown and modernized its military, the country has managed to keep its spending far below the exorbitant levels of the Soviet Union, at least publicly.
In 1989, just before the government collapsed, the Soviet Union was revealed to be spending about 8.4% of its national GDP on the military, or over 15% of its national budget. In comparison, despite regular jumps in China’s national defense budget, it still only sits at 1.9% of the country’s total GDP.
As a result, China is far more economically powerful in 2019 than the Soviet Union ever was. “During the Cold War in the 1980s, the Soviet Union had a smaller economy than Japan,” Lemahieu said.