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

By Robert S. Ross | Go to book overview

7 U.S. Policy Toward China: The Strategic Context and the Policy-Making Process

Robert S. Ross

From the time of Henry Kissinger's trip to China in July 1971 until the end of the cold war in the late 1980s, the United States' China policy was fundamentally shaped by the challenge posed by the Soviet Union and the corresponding value of strategic cooperation with Beijing. Once Washington opened relations with China, at no time was it free to ignore Chinese interests. In the cold war context, cooperative U.S.-Chinese relations were too valuable to jeopardize over less-significant bilateral differences.

Nonetheless, U.S. policy was neither stagnant nor immutable. Rather, at times U.S. statesmen were more prone to conciliation than at other times. A number of factors determined U.S. policy. Security concerns were particularly important. To the extent that the Soviet threat appeared more severe, Washington sought closer U.S.-Chinese relations and adopted a more flexible policy regarding bilateral conflicts, including the Taiwan issue. But this triangular dynamic did not determine U.S. policy. Policy making in any country, but particularly in a country that is both a superpower and a democracy, is rarely the result of the pursuit of "objective" strategic interests, as defined by the international system. Rather, strategic circumstances provided the broad context in which other international and domestic factors contributed to U.S. policy making, including elite perceptions of U.S. security, the inherent asymmetry in U.S. and Chinese power, and U.S. domestic politics. The precise mix of the role of these other factors in U.S. policy making varied over the nearly twenty years of cooperation. The only constant during this period was that U.S. leaders consistently valued China's contribution to U.S. security and, thus, at minimum, sought stable relations.

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