There are six clear parallels with the Cold War. First, U.S.-China rivalry is between the world’s two most powerful states, one a liberal democracy and the other avowedly communist. Second, it is a system-wide contest for supremacy. Third, it is about values as well as power. Fourth, it will be a multidecade struggle for global ascendancy. Fifth, a second geopolitical bifurcation of the world is likely. Sixth, neither side wants a full-scale military confrontation. In short, it is not your run-of-the-mill great power conflict.
There are, of course, significant differences. China has supplanted Russia as the main threat. Strategic competition between the United States and the Soviet Union largely played out in the political and military domains; there was little trade between the two competing blocs. But the main contest between the U.S. and China is economic, which means that trade, investment, technology, and strategic industries are central to today’s rivalry.
At its high point, the GDP of the Soviet Union was only 40 percent of that of the United States’. But China’s is already at 65 percent and growing rapidly. Between them, the U.S. and China account for around 40 percent of global GDP. If either of these two titans sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold — literally, in the case of China, as the impact of the coronavirus continues to lay waste to the health and prosperity of millions.