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

By Robert S. Ross | Go to book overview

stances rapprochement between the other two members of the strategic triangle might have been read as a warning of declining U.S. influence. Was not Kissinger's rule about remaining closer to the other two than they were to each other about to be broken? The Reagan administration's policy toward the Soviet Union did not respond to this apparent risk because its premises were different: its aim was not to make incremental, piecemeal adjustments to a somewhat more uncertain environment but to bring about a fundamental improvement in the balance of power. Where the policy of the Carter years had been tentative and compromise-prone, the new administration was determined to reexamine every element of U.S.-Soviet relations and to scrap whatever seemed to grant the Soviet side too much. The president and his advisers plainly believed that their tough approach to the Soviet Union meant China's probes of Soviet flexibility would have no adverse geopolitical consequences. 65

To this reason for U.S. equanimity in the face of a possible Sino-Soviet rapprochement there should be added another: the carefully calibrated pace of China's diplomacy. Despite its rhetoric of equidistance, Chinese policy under Deng Xiaoping tied Sino-Soviet normalization to removal of the famous three obstacles (reduction of the Soviet military threat on the Chinese border, Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, and Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia). In practice, Beijing shared the approach of the Reagan administration: it sought to place the burden of improved relations on Moscow.

To shake U.S. policy, improvement in Sino-Soviet relations would have had to be more sudden and less conditional: an overnight reversal in the manner of Kissinger's own first trip to China in 1971. Such a bold stroke was clearly more than the enfeebled Soviet leadership of the early 1980s was prepared for, and even as revitalized by Gorbachev, Soviet policy remained extremely deliberate. An early diplomatic breakthrough in relations with China would have been seen as a brilliant success for Aleksandr Yakovlev's strategy of exploiting latent weaknesses in the United States' alliance relationships. Instead, a marked improvement in Sino-Soviet ties occurred only when the broad lines of Gorbachev's policy had already been clarified. By then, it was clear that the Soviet Union had no serious prospect of reshaping the global power balance at the United States' expense.

The Reagan administration's record suggests that triangular diplomacy had its greatest significance when U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union was equivocal, and especially when the overall balance of power was poor or deteriorating. The added strength afforded by the U.S.-Chinese relationship mattered most to the United States when U.S. policy was undecided about just how urgent the Soviet threat was.


Conclusion: The Bush Administration and the End of the Cold War

The collapse of the Soviet Union's East European bloc was the single event that, more than any other, redefined East-West relations at the end of the 1980s. After

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