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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foreign policy and closed with its near-total failure. As the period opened, Soviet successes made U.S. rapprochement with China seem especially valuable. For the Nixon administration, it was in fact the only clearly positive trend in an otherwise deteriorating global power balance. Subsequent administrations also treated their ties to Beijing as a great asset, but they began to have to deal with the consequences of Soviet strategy toward China as well. As Moscow's military buildup in the Far East continued, it began to involve the deployment of systems that affected U.S. strategic calculations. Soviet activism in the third world, which bore a clear anti-China edge in both southern Africa and Indochina, also became a growing worry for U.S. policy.

The Ford administration was the first to feel this negative impact of Sino- Soviet hostility. But it was only in the Carter years that the question of how to respond was fully formulated; it proved one of the most divisive issues in an already divided administration. Should the U.S. remain evenhanded in its treatment of the two Communist rivals, or should it favor the weaker party, China? Advocates of the latter approach prevailed, and their concern with the state of the global power balance was even more strongly felt by the new Reagan administration. U.S. policy now took for granted the view that threats to China had an inescapable bearing on U.S. security as well.

In the 1970s and most of the 1980s, Soviet strategy was marked by a determination to be at least equal to the broadest possible coalition of other powers. It is hardly surprising that this strategy eventually brought such a coalition into being. Soviet conduct revived an atmosphere of East-West confrontation and transformed the U.S. rapprochement with China, which might under other circumstances have been left undeveloped, into an alliance in all but name.

For the new Soviet leadership that came to power in the mid- 1980s, these results confirmed the need for a comprehensive rethinking of their dealings with the outside world. Gorbachev and his colleagues sought to break the isolation that past Soviet policies had produced. In so doing, they underscored a link between two events that stand at opposite ends of this twenty-year period: the U.S. opening to China and the end of the cold war.

Richard Nixon, "Asia After Vietnam," Foreign Affairs ( October 1967):121.
"If Moscow succeeded in humiliating Peking and reducing it to impotence, the whole weight of the Soviet military effort could be thrown against the West" ( Henry Kissinger , White House Years [ Boston: Little, Brown, 1979], p. 764).
Ibid., p. 695 (emphasis added).
The U.S. decision to move a carrier task force into the Bay of Bengal was accelerated by a request from the Chinese UN mission for a meeting with Kissinger. He interpre


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