The growing tensions between the U.S. and China are conjuring up visions of a new Cold War, with China taking the place of the Soviet Union. Perhaps, in some ways, but the situation is actually quite different from what it was half a century ago.
For example, in the early days of the Cold War, the United States consistently underestimated the Soviet's capabilities. That became obvious early on, like when the Soviets exploded a hydrogen bomb three months after the U.S. did, but using a design that was superior to the American version, much to the surprise of American scientists. Then the Russians demonstrated an amazing ability to turn German World War II research into effective anti-aircraft missile systems. This resulted in president Eisenhower being told that the Soviets could not detect the new U-2 high altitude reconnaissance aircraft. Then after that proved wrong, Eisenhower was told that the Soviets could not shoot it down. Then the Soviets shot down a U-2. For a while, the Soviets built superior radars and missiles compared to the U.S. They also built better ballistic missiles. The Soviets were the first to successfully test and launch an ICBM, causing a major crisis of confidence in the U.S. military. Until the late 1970's when the Soviets started to go broke, the Soviets had great designs but mediocre implementations.
The Russian space program today is very robust despite the collapse of the Soviet Union. They make money at it, a secret we never figured out, because they kept things simple and cheap. They were not tempted into building expensive, "neat", high tech solutions to simple problems, because they couldn't.
Today China has certain major advantages over the Soviets of yore. First, and very important. The Chinese have more money. At the moment they have over a trillion dollars in foreign currency with which to buy technology. Joseph Stalin could only dream of having that kind of cash. Then there is education. The U.S. has been training the best and brightest Chinese students in American grad schools for the last 30 years. That has resulted in one out of five Chinese scientists being a "returned overseas Chinese" (they are buying back expertise and knowledge). For example, the head of the Chinese computer science institute was once a professor at Purdue. The Chinese got back Andrew Yao, a well regarded Princeton computer scientist and Steve Chen, developer of the Cray YMP supercomputer. European and American researchers actively collaborate with Chinese scientists, very little of this during Cold War with Soviets. China is third in GDP at the moment, and will be number two by 2010. The Soviets were probably around 30 in the late 1980s, just before they collapsed.
The Chinese are building one thing the Soviets never could, an ability to mass produce high tech. All those Soviet accomplishments in the early days of the Cold War were created, hand-made, so to speak, by a small group of scientists and engineers. But even with their advantages, the Chinese still have problems with their military tech. Mostly it's corruption and incompetence in the officer corps. An old Chinese tradition, that we can only hope will persist. This is no minor problem, as the Chinese are well aware. For decades, the Chinese have been trying to modernize the weapons, equipment, training and leadership of their military. They have not got a lot to show for it. The problems are always the same, corruption and incompetence. The Chinese themselves know where this is coming from. It's an ancient Chinese problem, trying to get the generals motivated in peacetime. While the Communist Party has better control over the generals than past Chinese rulers (emperors), the government still has to depend on the military as the ultimate defender of the government from the Chinese people. That is becoming more important than making the Chinese military into serious competition for the Americans. The Chinese people are getting wealthier, better educated, and more aware that their leaders are a bunch of thieves.
June 6, 2006:The Chinese government completed a study of its military spending, and believes that this spending should be increased, particularly to deal with any potential military confrontation over Taiwanese independence. Of course, Taiwan is already independent, has been independent for over half a century. But China insists that Taiwan is part of China, is waiting for an opportunity to take possession of the wealthy island.
June 4, 2006:A Chinese AWACs clone, the KJ-2000, crashed killing all 40 people on board. This was more than just the loss of a prototype aircraft and its crew, for 35 of those on board were engineers and scientists involved in developing and, in this case, testing the systems installed on the KJ-2000. Even the Chinese media noted that the government was very upset at this particular accident, and an investigation into how it happened is under way.
June 3, 2006:China now has new laws making it illegal to upload or download copyrighted materials without permission. Enforcing such laws is another matter, but the government has satisfied many complaints from trading partners, simply by enacting the new laws. Chinese economic and military growth is fueled by lots of pirated software. Until recently, that sort of theft wasn't even illegal in China.