China, the United States, and the Soviet Union: Tripolarity and Policy Making in the Cold War

By Robert S. Ross | Go to book overview
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3 The Strategic Triangle and China's Soviet Policy

Chi Su

Ever since the outbreak of Sino-Soviet conflict, the strategic triangle has been a major focus of study for many Western strategists and scholars. There was good reason for this trend. In an era of confrontation, China occupied a special place in Western and Soviet strategic thinking. Though "poor and blank," China stood out among the developing countries by virtue of its sheer size, population, geographical location, and, perhaps most importantly, its seeming flexibility in executing major domestic and foreign policy swings. Yet, as the post-cold war era emerges, it is high time to reexamine the concept of the "strategic triangle" and its utility when applied to Sino-Soviet relations.


China and the Strategic Triangle

In retrospect, the triangular relationships among Beijing, Washington, and Moscow were so strategic that there was nothing romantic about them. 1 As an analytical concept, however, the strategic triangle suffers from three major drawbacks. First, it overestimates the weight and range of China's power. In terms of GNP, military hardware, or power projection capability, China pales in comparison to both the United States and the Soviet Union. If Khrushchev's foreign policy could be termed "premature globalism," there is much less reason to regard the People's Republic of China (PRC) of the 1970s and 1980s on a par with the two superpowers, which possessed truly global reach. 2 This strategic distinction between China and the superpowers was a major factor affecting its Soviet policy.

The second problem with this concept is that it depicts the general contour of the forest of U.S.-Soviet-Chinese relations, but leaves much to be desired when it

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