China’s Emergence as a Superpower

A Graphic Comparison of the United States, Russia, China, and Other Major Powers

The Emeritus Chair in Strategy at CSIS is issuing a report written by Anthony H. Cordesman that compares the key trends in civil and military power in the United States, developed democracies, China, and Russia. The report is entitled China’s Emergence as a Super Power: A Graphic Comparison of the United States, Russia, China, and Other Major Powers. A downloadable copy is attached at the end of this announcement, and it is available on the CSIS website at

The graphs, maps, and tables in this report only highlight a limited range of the complex changes involved, and reliable data are often lacking for the years after 2020. They still show, however, that the civil and military role of the world’s major powers is in a process of dramatic and unpredictable change.

The Key Impact of China’s Emergence as a Major Global Economic Power

 China has emerged as an economic superpower that rivals the United States in many ways, although the total economic power of modern democracies—most of which are strategic partners of the United States—vastly exceeds the size of the Chinese economy, trade efforts, and efforts in technology and research and development. China also faces major internal challenges created by outside restrictions and economic sanctions, its handling of Covid-19, and state interference in its economic development.

Nevertheless, China is already competing with the economies of developed democratic states on a global level. Its “belt and road” efforts to establish economic ties to developing states and control critical minerals and resources. It may succeed in creating a rival economic bloc that can function and grow outside the “rules-based order” democracies created after World War II, and it is already competing in its relations with a number of developing states and other countries.

The trends presented in this report show that this competition may well become an ongoing confrontation between China and its allies, and developed democracies and their strategic partners, unless radical changes take place in Chinese policies and leadership. And—as is discussed shortly—is a growing level of civil confrontation that is being matched by military confrontation as well.

Russia’s Diminished Global Economic Role

The following graphics show that Russia is not an economic superpower now that it has lost control of most East European states and many of the Central European and Asian elements of the former Soviet Union. Russia has long lagged badly in total economic growth, trade, research and development, and all the other major areas of economic power. Russia’s size, geographic position, and large oil and gas reserves do, however, still make it a key global power.

Key Uncertainties in the Civil Impacts of Economic Power

It should be stressed, however, that current trends can only tell part of the story. Any analysis of economic and civil power will be shaped by many key trends that cannot be quantified. They include the longer-term impacts of the economic stresses between and within developed states, the impact of internal politics, the impact of demographic change and population pressure, and the impact of global warming. They also include the degree to which the developed democracies can succeed in cooperating and creating truly functional economic strategic partnerships. As yet, governments often rely far more on rhetoric about such cooperation than on taking tangible action, although there are positive indicators as well.

The graphics in this analysis also do not include the developing world. Here, the allocation of international economic power has generally favored developed states. As the UN, World Bank, IMF, and a host of NGO reports make clear, many states have failed to move towards effective development and face major challenges from failed or corrupt governance, repression and internal division, population pressure, limited water supplies, and climate change. For all the former rhetoric about globalism, this includes at least one-third of the world’s nations.

At the same time, there are cases like India, where the trends in global power could move in other directions. While they are not yet positive enough to include in this analysis, India has overtaken China as the world’s most populous state, has a GDP of some $9.3 trillion, and ranks high in terms of total military spending. Several major petroleum states in the Gulf are taking positive steps to develop beyond a reliance on energy exports, as are some states in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. For all the failings in the developing world, they are also important potential successes.

The Impact of Trends in Military Power

The graphs and tables that follow show that the United States remains the world’s largest military power, the one with the most combat experience and highest levels of total spending and investment in modernization, and the one with the strongest strategic partners.

It is also clear, however, that the United States already faces growing competition from China, particularly in the Pacific and in the Indian Ocean as well. In the case of Taiwan, competition has already turned to serious confrontation and the risk of war. Once again, China has vastly increased its capabilities since 1990, as well as its military links to other Asia power. Much depends on the United States’ ability to strengthen its strategic partnerships with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and other Asian states—as well as European states with major power projection capabilities like Great Britain and France.

The Uncertainties Driven by the War in Ukraine

At the same time, the United States and its strategic partners face a major challenge from Russia and one that current U.S. national strategy tends to seriously understate. As the graphics show, Russia may not have an economy that can fully support its present conventional forces, but it remains a major threat to the United States’ European strategic partners and NATO, and the Russian military threat must be given equal priority with that from China. 

The trends shown in this analysis do not generally go beyond 2021 and cannot reflect the many longer-term changes in the military balance that are growing out of the war in Ukraine. It is clear, however, that the United States and its NATO allies are engaged in major proxy war, supporting Ukraine in its defense against Russia. They also are already rebuilding NATO’s overall level of extended deterrence against Russia, and doing so at a time when Vladimir Putin, Russia’s leader, has made it clear that he sees NATO as a major and continuing threat.

There is no current way to predict how the war in Ukraine will change the overall balance of military power and how and when it will end. It seems almost certain, however, that as long as Putin rules Russia, the United States and the rest of NATO will be engaged in a new Cold War, and one which will effectively match a similar Cold War between the United States and its strategic partners in Asia and China.

A Return to Nuclear Forces

As the final sections of this analysis also show, these two Cold Wars have a major nuclear dimension. The race to build up conventional military power is, in some ways, being outpaced by a new nuclear arms race. This race not only reflects the near collapse of nuclear arms control but a potential return to major tactical, theater, and dual-capable nuclear forces. It also is clear that Russia is now only a supe power to the extent it has inherited a massive legacy of nuclear weapons and technology from the former Soviet Union.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy