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

By Robert S. Ross | Go to book overview

6 U.S. Policy Toward the Soviet Union, 1970-90: The Impact of China

Stephen Sestanovich

Long before the diplomatic revolution of 1971, U.S. policymakers took China into account in weighing the East-West balance of power. In the 1950s, Beijing's alignment with Moscow made Soviet foreign policy appear more formidable and worrisome than it otherwise would have, and made negotiation of questions like nuclear testing and nuclear proliferation considerably more complicated. In the 1960s, by contrast, the disintegration of the "socialist camp" appeared to soften the Soviet challenge to Western interests; arms control agreements became correspondingly easier to reach.

How has the state of Sino-Soviet relations affected U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union in the two decades since the celebrated "opening" to China? As was true before 1971, there have been times when the strategic triangle seemed to create important diplomatic opportunities for the United States. At other times, at least some U.S. policymakers believed that China's conflict with the Soviet Union placed new obstacles in the way of sound U.S. policy.

To measure the impact of China on relations between the superpowers is to pose two different questions about the strategic triangle. The first has to do with diplomatic bargaining leverage: did alignment with China provide new tools for the United States in negotiations with the Soviet Union? A second and much broader question concerns the global power balance: did Sino-Soviet rivalry shape the U.S. view of Soviet expansionism and of the measures needed to counter it?

The answers to these two questions are very different. Despite the many claims that have been made about the "China card," a review of U.S. policy over

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