From Wikipedia article on triangular diplomacy

In political science, triangular diplomacy is a foreign policy of the United States, developed during the Vietnam War (1955–1975) by Henry Kissinger, as a means to manage relations between the contesting communist powers, the Soviet Union and China. Connecting heavily with the correlating policy of linkage, the policy was intended to exploit the ongoing rivalry between the two Communist powers (following the Sino-Soviet split (1956–1966)), as a means to strengthen American hegemony and diplomatic interest.

Since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, the US seemingly have failed to rally China against Russia. The recent trip by Nancy Pelosi seems to push China even further away (although formally president Biden has disapproved of the visit, it was likely coordinated with him).

Have the US abandoned (or was forced to abandon) the triangular diplomacy? Why? What are the realistic alternatives? (e. g., have the US become powerful enough to oppose Russia and China united?)

I am be mostly interested in the analyses on the subject by leading policy makers/strategist (e.g., those published in journals like Foreign Policy, etc.)

  • I do not know why you think that Biden was coordinating with Pelosi. By all accounts from inside his administration, he worked very hard to convince her not to go. Also, Taiwanese independence is extremely unimportant for the average voter—who if anything probably wants Taiwan and China to get along so that the economy does better—so that hypothetical strategy does not make much sense. Inflation, violence, COVID-19, and abortion are the issues that will win or lose the midterms, not policy toward other countries.
    – Obie 2.0
    Aug 6, 2022 at 6:14
  • @Obie2.0 I thought more about rallying around the flag and presenting Biden (and the party) as standing up to Russia and China. But this is not the essential point. However, if you do believe that Biden sincerely tries to save the triangular diplomacy, I invite you to expand on it in an answer. Aug 6, 2022 at 6:20
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    Russia isn't communistic anymore. Would China still be regarded as such? Aug 12, 2022 at 6:09
  • @Trilarion somebody edited the title - the phrase in brackets wasn't in my initial version. China is nominally "communist", but de facto a capitalist country. Aug 12, 2022 at 9:48
  • @RogerVadim I edited the title to give readers an immediate impression what triangular diplomacy is by quoting from your definition. Now the next question is how applicable this whole concept still is. I'm not sure if I should simply answer with: times have changed and Russia and China aren't rivals anymore. Aug 12, 2022 at 11:58

2 Answers 2


Have the US abandoned (or was forced to abandon) the triangular diplomacy?

Yes and no.

"Yes" because there's no longer an ideological battle between Moscow and Beijing over who to lead the communist struggle worldwide. Also territorial disputes between the two got solved, as I understand it. It's easy to claim a genius move when the two had actually something to fight over. (As far as I know the US had no real contribution to causing the Sino-Soviet split, including the border war, they only exploited it. Actually, one could sort-of claim that the US did have something to do with initiating the split, as one of the more acerbic propagandistic attacks by Mao on Khrushchev was accusing him first of adventurism and then of backing off too easily in the Cuban missile crisis. On the other hand, Mao was deeply dissatisfied with Khrushchev denouncing Stalin[ism], so he would have likely found other ways to attack Khrushchev as compromising.)

And "no" because China and Russia still want some different things, like varying degree of economic-exchange cooperation with the West, even if Russia has been more willing to sacrifice that for territorial gains, as of late, as well exhibiting a pattern of unilateral military interventions abroad in the past 14 years, while China has at best supplied UN peacekeepers (mostly in Africa) during this time. So the level of risk-aversion for military adventures is still quite different in Moscow vs Beijing. Not surprisingly, Biden warned Xi of 'consequence' should China help Russia in the war on Ukraine.

In narrow fields, China and Russia are still competing, like the recent arrests of Russian hypersonic researchers show--supposedly they sold secrets to China--, even if there's broader economic and especially military cooperation as of late like joint naval exercises in the seas around Japan.

However, the West and especially the US being involved in helping Ukraine and Taiwan is working in the opposite direction, of driving Russia and China towards closer ties in foreign policy, along the lines of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend". This is readily acknowledged in Washington. So, the hawks even put out pieces like "Washington Must Prepare for War With Both Russia and China".

A part of those who contest this view (e.g. Mearsheimer), propose that the US leave Europe+Russia to their own devices and that US must pivot to confronting China, turning Taiwan into a bulwark in the process, which (while exposed and ultimately might be defeated in a Pyrrhic victory by China) is supposed to last out just long enough for the US to economically defeat the PRC.

There are also those who say it's more ridiculous however for the US stick its neck out for Taiwan as that much more readily compares with China claiming a vital interest in defending Cuba, in terms of areas involved and distances. This camp acknowledges that the loss of a "major ally" in the Pacific region, like Australia, Japan, or South Korea would be much more of an issue worth preventing, but that Beijing is unlikely to achieve anything of that magnitude, so antagonizing the PRC over Taiwan isn't actually worth it (and likewise the US supporting even major Pacific allies' claims on small islands in the Pacific being also not worthwhile.) They also propose leaving more of Ukraine etc. as a problem for Europeans, but not entirely.

Typically, what distinguishes the realist school proposals (of which "triangular diplomacy" is just one incarnation) is that they don't embrace the idealist idea that the US must help defend every democracy, so [more] concessions can be made, for the sake of some ultimate US victory/hegemony or preserving some balance of powers. (Realists don't necessarily agree to whom to make what concessions though.)

If you want some kind of straw poll of experts, there is one regarding the solidity of the China-Russia relationship in Foreign Affairs. The points raised are more or less those from above, but that discussion doesn't get much to proposed solutions of how the US could drive a deeper wedge between Russia and China.

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    The US is also in a weaker position for triangular diplomacy, because it's allowed itself to become dependent on China for so much manufacturing. Aug 6, 2022 at 14:33
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    @JohnDallman: yes, but as with most economic ties, that goes both ways. If the US decouples economically from China beforehand, then China has (much) less to lose economically by attacking Taiwan, due to subsequent US sanctions. Only a military response is a deterrent then. The EU-ropean idea that economic ties make a war less likely is not completely without merit, but it has its limits. Aug 6, 2022 at 15:11
  • @JohnDallman As we saw from the zero-Covid economic shocks coming from China though, disruption can definitely cut both ways, at least in the short run. bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-60703301 Aug 6, 2022 at 15:29

Yes indeed: in lieu of strategy and political leverage, levies, trade embargoes, the military hand has been the tool of choice to challenge China/Russia, and that's causing them to grow stronger together.

Instead of strategy, there's an increase in diplomatic naivety, public verbal attacks on foreign leaders especially from the UK and US, reminiscent of a wrestling match (WWF), together with steroid-boosted free-trade agreements.

Who benefits from creating very strong, very angry adversaries? The military industrial complex here have won a jackpot, and their power in the White House appears to be stronger than ever. Perhaps they are the leading strategists today.

The agenda of Clinton-Bush-Obama-Trump-Biden has erratically strengthened Russia and China economically while menacing them militarily into an intimate alliance, rather than divide them.

Kissinger was german born so which may have aided him with real-world international experience, whereas Biden, Bush Obama are US based diplomats. We can say that the US political leaders are becoming more naive than Kissinger and Reagan would have been.

The individual convictions of succeeding strategists in the White House have changed while capitalist Russia and China became power economies and trading power-houses, and the military briefings given to US presidents seem to confound them. We see that the wisdom in the White House is reducing, while the lobbies are dictating the strategy... The White House is run like dollar store instead of a book shop, and the presidents are cajoled to accept the military apparatus they are placed in when they move into the presidential suite.


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