More coursework: 1 - A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I - J | K - L | M | N - O | P - S | T | U - Y

International relations of strategic geometry



"This is the only region in the world where so many combinations and permutations of two- three and four- and even two plus four or three plus three- power games can be played on the regional chessboard with all their complexities and variations."


The concept of strategic geometry comprises the notion that that the interactions and interconnections between a number of political actors within a particular system of international relations, either global or regional can be seen in terms of geometric patterns of strategic configurations. It can be a case of simple geometry, in which A interacts with B: but in a more complex system such as that of Asia, with the presence of more than one major actor, each with their distinct, sometimes conflicting political agendas, the interaction between A and B will be likely to affect C or influenced by C.

The concept of an international 'system' itself implies that events are not random, and units within the system are interrelated in some patterned way. This 'patterning' maybe envisaged or conceptualized as patterns of strategic geometry.

Any attempt to analyze the transition from a Cold War system of international relations to a post Cold War one, will incorporate an analysis of the general nature of the system itself, in this case the system of international relations in Asia; of the actors involved and their respective roles; how changes in the political environment and in specific policies of the actors shape the evolution of a new system; and finally the nature of the new system with its own actors, their new roles, and new concerns.

The concept of strategic geometry enables us to understand these changes in the political dynamics from one system to another, in our case the transition from the Cold War to the post Cold War era, by serving as an analytic tool. If we view the international relations of Asia, more and the interactions of the main actors in terms of strategic configurations and geometric patterns of alignments and oppositions, then we can assess changes in the political system over time by way of the changes in the strategic geometry. Some strategic configurations change, others remain the same, while new patterns of strategic geometry appear, as the old forms dissolve--the explanations behind the shifting pattern of strategic geometry is what enables us to understand the transition from the Cold War era to the post Cold War.

Geopolitical and politico-economic factors have in some cases changed the content, but not the form of the particular strategic configurations and in some cases however, we find both form and content are changed. In my essay I will focus on this dual analysis of the content and form of the major patterns of strategic geometry and their change over time from Cold War to post Cold War. In order to assess the usefulness of the concept of strategic geometry, we must first see how well the concept is expressed in the international relations of Asia. Firstly I will briefly outline the general strategic concerns or tenets of the Cold War era, the roles and interactions of the actors involved, and the major strategic geometric patterns this produced. The second part of my essay will comprise an analysis of the evolution of the system, and the tenets of the new post cold war system, drawing attention at the same time to the usefulness of the concept of strategic geometry to explain the transition.

quadrangles and triangles

One may even conceptualize pre -Cold War international relations in strategic geometric terms: the past is replete with instances of three-way interactions between Japan, China and the Soviet Union. According to Mandlebaum, the fate of the region has "for the last two centuries' depended 'on the fate of three major powers--China, Japan and Russia, on the stability and tranquillity of their mutual relations." Hence we may presume that it is not novel or unknown to apply the concept of strategic geometry to Asia and as I shall illustrate it will prove particularly useful in understanding the transition from the Cold War to the post Cold War era.

Let us begin with a simpler model of strategic geometry which existed in Europe during the Cold War. From 1948 onwards, a more or less clear-cut line divided Europe into two main political and military blocs: the communist bloc and the free world of Western Europe, resulting in an almost perfect bipolarity. However, the politics in Asia during the same period were more dynamic and nuanced than just the simple East-West divide of Europe. Here, there was none of "the sharp structural clarity of Europe," no drawing of a line, no Iron Curtain; rather, there existed a more complex web of international relations, because of the physical presence of three great powers: the Soviet Union, China and Japan. And from 1945 onwards, another great power, the United States, took up a permanent political and military residence in the region. These four major powers have dominated the East Asia region both during the Cold War and continue to do so in the post- Cold War era, hence according to Mandlebaum, "the appropriate geometric metaphor was and still is the strategic quadrangle." The interactions of these four main powers-sometimes in cooperation, other times in conflict- have shaped the international relations of Asia. How this took place during and after the Cold War is in many ways quite dissimilar. However, more importantly than the all encompassing quadrangle, it is the strategic geometry within the quadrangle that is most interesting and illustrates best, the changes and nuances in the transition from Cold War to post Cold War. The interactions within the strategic quadrangle itself, have been generally of a bilateral or triangular nature. As Mandlebaum suggests "Indeed in Asia, the structure of politics all along has been more complex than the stark bipolarity of Europe. Rather than two competing systems, Asia's international order was a clutter of triangles." The triangle is the predominant strategic geometric metaphor characterizing the nature of interactions in East Asia, especially during the Cold War and to a less intense degree in the post Cold War era.

the Cold War era

The Cold War system of international relations was a geopolitical intermixing of security, ideology and the balance of power, especially military power. Everything took root from two essential conflicts: firstly, the US-Soviet opposition and secondly, from the 1970s onwards the Sino-Soviet split; and from one essential alliance: the US-Japanese partnership. Each of these bilateral alliances or oppositions affected in some way a third party. 'The most well-known and widely debated triangle being the Sino-Soviet-US grouping with at least 4 possible configurations."

One may just turn towards one actor in the system, or one player in the Strategic Quadrangle, to see the preoccupation with strategic geometry. As Mandlebaum states: "For no country more than the Soviet Union did the underlying structure of Asian international politics revolve about a complex interconnected set of triangular relationships. The most obvious and famous of the triangles linked the Soviet Union, China and the United States, but the Soviet-US- Japan triangle was also important. In addition, five others also helped to shape Soviet policy 1. Sino-Soviet -Japanese triangle 2. Sino-Soviet-North Korean triangle 3. Sino-Soviet-Vietnamese triangle 4. Soviet-Vietnamese-ASEAN triangle 5. Sino-Soviet-Indian triangle. Though from this perspective, certain things stand out. First, China's centrality: China figures in nearly all of the triangles, not even the US affected Soviet policy to this degree. Second, the full set of triangles that impeded, shaped and invigorated the policies of Gorbachev's predecessors varied greatly in importance, all of them overshadowed by the crucial Sino-Soviet-US triangle. Indeed the others owed much of their dynamic to the course of events in this main triangle." Through the 1960s, there were 4 main triangles in the Asian political arena: Soviet Union-China-North Vietnam, Soviet Union-Japan-US, Sino-Soviet-Indian- and Soviet Union-China-North Korea. In the 1970s, however this changed not only because more triangles were added, but because they included a new kind of triangle, the Sino-Soviet-US triangle.

"Normally triangles are not thought of as a stable form in social or political relationships nor as a stabilizing influence within a larger setting. The great post-war exception was the Soviet-US-Japan triangle. Relationships among the three countries scarcely changed, apart from fluctuations in US-Soviet and US-Japanese relations from time to time. Its immobility may have been the single most stabilizing element in post war Asian politics." The Soviet-Japanese-American triangle drove Soviet policy towards Japan, since the Soviets viewed Japan as a creature of American engagement in Asia. A whole series of strategic triangles were borne out of the cold war climate which make strategic geometry very useful and illuminating model to study the international relations of Asia during the period. However, our emphasis is on the usefulness of the concept for studying the 'transition' from Cold War to post Cold War. This requires an analysis of both systems, in order to assess the process of change.

the post-Cold War era: changes in the system

Today, we are in a relatively 'open' period of history, free from the polarized nature of the Cold War, yet "more than ever each of the four powers has compelling stakes in its relations with the other three. More than ever each of the four counts as a separate and independent player, none has the power or inclination to destroy the equilibrium." But what about strategic geometry? With the disappearance of the Soviet threat is it still a useful model for the study of international relations in Asia? Or is its use limited to the great power play of the Cold War? And most importantly, how can the concept of strategic geometry lend to our understanding of the transition from the Cold War to the post Cold War system of international relations in Asia?

First, I will briefly outline the features of the transition.

The tenets of the post Cold War system seem to be the predominance of economic considerations, national welfare and stability. Mandlebaum expresses his view of the transition from a Cold War to a post Cold War system, when he states: "nations, including those in East Asia, crossed into a world in which they had more to bear from dangers than enemies....dangers of political, economic, and ecological disorder...the primary stakes ceased to be security, but longer war and peace, but the vitality of societies and the dynamism of economies."

To begin with what constitutes 'power' has changed dramatically in wake of the demise of the Soviet Union. The shift from a military to an economic definition of power, from "a geopolitical to a geoeconomic axis" resulting from "wholesale change in the entire military-strategic edifice in Asia," has in its turn, produced "a radically different range of collaborations among the four major powers." Though, military concerns still warrant a significant priority, as some of today's triangles demonstrate, especially considering the presence of three out of five of the world's nuclear powers in the region. On the whole however, today's Asia is one of mutually dependent economies "where economics is the name of the game." The concept of strategic geometry has a reduced validity or maybe more aptly termed 'economic geometry.' With the rise of the Asian tigers, and Japan's status of an economic superpower, coupled with greater regionalism such as embodied by the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and ASEAN, there is more diversification of power in East Asia, at least in economic terms.

Understanding the change from a Cold War to a post Cold War system also requires an understanding of the transition in terms of military power. China and Japan are the rising military powers, while Russia is a declining one. Strategic geometry very useful in assessing the transition in these terms. Instead of Japan and the US balancing Russian military power, today Japan and the US act to balance Chinese military power. I will elaborate on this issue later, in my discussion of the Japan-US-China triangle.

Democracy and prosperity, two traditional goals are back on the US agenda after the disappearance of the Soviet threat. Yet for the US, like for the others, the post Cold War is still dominated by considerations of power and wealth; fear of the first and lure of the second keeping the US engaged in East Asia.

Russia's preoccupation with internal restructuring and the rise of Central Asia has meant that Russia's role in the strategic quadrangle has become as "less of a player than a problem." Within the quadrangle, Russia has replaced the Soviet Union. "The radical revision of Russia's surroundings not only profoundly affects Russian foreign policy and therefore indirectly East Asia, but it directly affects East Asia because of the new, intervening reality of Central Asia. From the standpoint of the others, the Soviet threat is not of warfare but of diminished national and international welfare."

China's emphasis on economic modernization. China has been the least changed by the ending of the Cold War since its great shift in course came a decade earlier, at the end of 1970s which saw the development of Deng Xiaoping's program of economic reform. The post Cold War era sees China more firmly committed to a capitalist vision, with its focus on economic modernization and growth. This in turn has produced China's 'omni-directional' foreign policy. The prospects accruing from Chinese economic modernization and at the same time, the specter of Chinese growth as it affects the other powers has given rise to new forms of strategic geometry, or provided the old forms of strategic geometry with a renewed basis.

The post Cold War era is also characterized by Japan's increasingly independent stance from the United States and its attempts at greater militarization.

A major feature of the transition form a Cold War system to a post Cold War system is the reversal in roles of the major powers. China has basically become a status-quo power, the United States has become something of a revolutionary state, seeking to transform the others and mould them in its own image ( exemplified by the stress on democracy, economic liberalization, human rights ).

We also witness the reversal of Japan's and Russia's post war roles, with Russia now being the one buffeted in the goings-on between China and Japan.

Furthermore, the continental landmass of Asia, dominated by Russia and China occupies the physical and strategic core of the area, a core that has radiated its effects through the sub-regions of the Korean peninsulas, and SEA and to the surrounding archipelagos. "Today the core is weak and unsure of itself, while the periphery is solid and confident." This change in fortune from the Cold War to the post Cold War era can be seen by way of the new strategic geometry and the rise of new triangles of interactions, especially including Korea.

Hence, we see the emergence of new actors, or old ones with new powers to influence the international relations of the region, most importantly North and South Korea and the issue of their unification, and the issue of the island of Taiwan.

These myriad of changes that constitute the transition from the Cold War to the post Cold War system of international relations in Asia; both changes in the general political climate and the changes in individual political agendas can be seen through the new and modified patterns of strategic geometry. I will focus on three such patterns: 1. the US-Japan-China triangle, where the form of the strategic geometry has stayed the same but its content has altered with a greater emphasis on economics 2. the content and form of triangles involving Russia 3. the new form and content of triangles involving Korea. An analysis of these three examples of strategic geometry in the post Cold War era will highlight the usefulness of the concept in analyzing the transition in the system from one era to the next.

the US-Japan-China triangle

An analysis of the US-Japan-China, an old triangle with new content illustrates many features of the transition from the Cold War to the post Cold War system of international relations. During the Cold War "both Tokyo and Washington developed their China policies in part to thwart Moscow's designs towards China and Asia." The US and China no longer act together to balance Soviet power; the US-Japan alliance no longer serves as a weight against balancing the power of both China and the Soviet Union; and Japan and China do not architect their relationship in light of US policies. The US-Japan-China triangle in the post cold war era rather illustrates all three nations' concern with economic prosperity and trade: American policy of placing trade at the center of US-Japan relations; China's emphasis on economic modernization constituting the cornerstone of its foreign policy; Japan's policy of 'expanding equilibrium.' Today's US-Japan-China triangle also reveals Japan's increasingly independent stance from the US, the US's stress on democracy and human rights, the reversal of the roles of China and the US, greater China-Japan bilateralism. The game of power - the attempts at gaining military , and more importantly economic leverage for oneself and controlling that of the other powers- is still evident, despite the dissolution of a 'universal' threat. But it is only who's playing against who that has changed. So the concept of strategic geometry is still valid and applicable. "Potential competition and mutual distrust between China and Japan were it to grow into something large would replace the post war contest between the US and the Soviet Union as dominant feature of international politics in Asia." During the Cold War, US military presence in Asia served as a deterrence against the military power of the Soviet Union; in the post Cold War era, it is a form of reassurance against the rise of Chinese military power.

Relations with Japan is the most important bilateral relation Beijing has, after that with Washington. "PRC leaders see an intimate connection between their policies towards Washington and Tokyo. From Beijing's perspective there is a 'strategic triangle' in Asia (US, Japan and China) and it is Beijing's purpose to utilize that three way relationship to its advantage." Beijing seeks to use the prospect of improved political and economic ties with Japan to induce Washington to be more politically cooperative, relax sanctions and encourage more American investment. On the other hand, "Japan is the principal economic and security challenge looming in China's future." Despite greater bilateralism between Japan and China based on the economic stakes and increasing volume of trade, China still harbors a fear of Japanese economic domination and a deep distrust in general. America's capital, willingness to transfer technology and ability to restrain Japan all serve China's interests. The disappearance of the Soviet threat has undermined the stability of the US-Japanese partnership, hence the distance between Japan and US has meant that China has become all the more important to Washington. A closer security relationship between US and China would further diminish the strategic importance of Japan to the US. At the same time "China looms all the more important for Japan as US interest, presence and influence in Asia seem to diminish." This means America's differences with China over human rights issues could also drive a wedge between US-Japan relations, since Japan would not join the US in imposing trade sanctions on China, owing to its own bilateral stakes. However, "in the long run Japan's ability to counter the geopolitical challenge from China depends on maintaining a robust alliance with the US." Furthermore, in the post Cold War era, the island of Taiwan is reshaping politics of the Quadrangle, adding another dimension to the US-Japan-China triangle, since the US's ideological proclivities towards Taiwan are in opposition to Japan's economic proclivities towards the mainland. According to Peter Hayes, North East Asia is overlaid by twin informal strategic triangles: the US "has linked China and Japan in an informal security triangle, and the common hypotenuse between this great power triangle on the one hand, and the informal security triangle among South Korea, US and Japan on the other."


Another major strategic change involves the economic rise of South Korea and isolation of the North. The rise of North and South Korea as major players in the Asian political arena is emblematic of the transition from the Cold War to the post Cold War system of international relations in the region. "Korea was important to the US only as a strategic tripwire for its Japan centered extended deterrence in the region." Korea was symbolic of America's cold war resolve to draw the containment line in East Asia. Political alignment in the region vis-a-vis both Koreas is demonstrative of differences between Cold War and post Cold War. The evolution of triangles involving the two Koreas highlight the decreasing role of ideology, socialist confrere and geopolitical rivalry, and the increasing importance of stability, world order, regional peace and economic prosperity. During the Cold War there existed two basic triangles involving Korea: one comprising the US, Japan, South Korea and the other comprising North Korea, Soviet Union, China. Since 196 5 the US-Japan-South Korea triangle, as Kent Calder argues emerged as another key feature of the highly dynamic but unbalanced economic and security relations of the region. In 1993, the scenario was entirely different with the US-Japan-South Korea-China-Russia all against North Korea, owing to its forward nuclear policy.

The "rapid progress in Moscow-Seoul relations, coupled with an equally rapid decompression of Moscow-Pyongyang relations, has taken the sting out of the long festering ideological and geopolitical rivalry China, and the former Soviet Union engaged in over North Korea. The ending of Cold War bipolarity has meant the demise of not only the vaunted China card in the collapsed strategic triangle (North Korea-China -Soviet Union) but also the Pyongyang card in the old Sino-Soviet rivalry." The rapprochement between China and South Korea in 1992, as a means to establish regional peace, hinted a possible emergence of a triangular relationship with the PRC in the best position to influence the two Koreas. The increasing economic interaction between China and South Korea, a major inspiration and product of the rapprochement is coupled with North Korea's attempts at gradually adopting the South Korea model of economic development transmitted through China. Through this triangle we see the emphasis on political stability and economic prosperity, quite different to the post Cold War concerns involving Korea and China. The rapprochement between North and South Korea has also forced Japan to build her ties with the former. From Japan's point of view this is necessary for the building of a 'new international order,' while from North Korea's perspective this represents an opening for economic assistance from Japan. Everyone now wants a piece of the pie, even North Korea!

Moreover, during the Cold War, the US consistently supported and enhanced South Korea in its rivalry with North Korea. With the demise of the Soviet Union, the US endorsed South Korea's ambitious northern diplomacy (Nordpolitik) that was primarily designed to normalize its relations with the Soviet Union, China and Eastern Europe, but was also intended to ease its frozen confrontation with North Korea. During the Cold War the US regarded its military position in the Korean peninsula as a pivotal buffer to protect Japan's security interests and to counterbalance strategic ascendancy of the Soviet Union and China. According to Curtis, today "US troops serve as a buffer between the two Koreas, as a check against Japan's military expansion and as a message to China and Russia that the US will remain a Pacific power. It is the most visible evidence of the US resolve to protect US economic interests." Hence, the politics of the Korean peninsula, which have become so integral to the system of international relations in Asia can be seen in terms of a whole set of triangular interactions.


Another way in which strategic geometry is a useful concept for understanding the transition from a Cold War to a post Cold War system is through the disappearance and obsoleteness of some of the old triangles. Russia is such as case in point.

The collapse of the Soviet Union has radically altered the face of international politics in East Asia, beginning with Gorbachev who revised three central features of post war Soviet policy in Asia by: 1. freeing it from the albatross of Sino-Soviet conflict 2. by suppressing the dominating idea of an East-West contest, shifted Soviet policy towards Japan. ending the Sino-Soviet conflict meant that China was no longer the motivation for Moscow's preoccupation with quantity and quality of arms, and hence did away with the significance of the Sino-Soviet-US triangle. "By altering Soviet priorities and by changing with whom and for what reason the Soviet Union would compete, Gorbachev brought an end to the pernicious geometry of the previous three decades. Triangles, by definition, are inherently tension filled; they are tripolarity with built in antagonism. Until, Gorbachev the quadrangle was in fact, two- perhaps-three-triangles. He terminated two triangles in which Soviet Union had a part."

In the post Cold War era, "Russia's relevance is not likely to be a factor affecting the basic equilibrium in East Asia." According to Mandlebaum, Russia and her new neighbors have become of marginal importance to the central concerns of the other three powers. The fall of communism and Russia's less intrusive role in Asia has meant that many of the old interactions and old triangles have ceased to be relevant. This power who to the greatest extent, viewed the politics of Asia in terms of strategic geometry, today, has a diminished presence, if virtually a non-existent one in the regions major strategic geometry. Asia to the Russians has become Central Asia. "The Soviet Union's security agenda whose focus divided entirely between China and US-Japanese connection, while not wholly abandoned has for the new Russia shifted dramatically towards Central Asia." Subsequently this has meant China's increased importance among East Asian states for Russia. Currently, Russia's most important ally in Asia is Kazakhstan, having taken on the role of Kazakhstan's nuclear protector (not unlike the US with Japan), but Russia also cares about internal developments within Kazakhstan and the evolution of its foreign relations, particularly with China. There maybe prospects here for a lesser regional triangle between Russia-China-Kazakhstan.

A study of the strategic geometry involving Russia today sheds light on many aspects of the shift from a Cold War to a post Cold War system. According to Mandlebaum, "the collapse of the Soviet Union has already given rise to a debate on the possibilities of a new strategic triangle involving the US, Japan and Russia." Russia's role in today's Sino-Japanese-Russian triangle is in balancing the power of both China and Japan. Russia and Japan have reversed roles in the post Cold War--Japan is now the major league player and Russia is the secondary player, buffeted by the happenings in Sino-Japanese relations. "Should the Sino-Japanese-Russian triangle revive, it will be much more dramatic than the late 19th century and Cold war versions," posits Mandlebaum. The new basis for Japan-China-Russia triangle is also to maintain a more congenial regional environment. The emphasis has shifted to stability and peace.

Today Sino-Russian bilateral relations are based on a 'constructive partnership' for accelerated economic cooperation including Russian arms sales to China and an overt 'meeting of the minds' on Central Asia. Tensions will again rise, especially since Sino-Russian competition for influence in the buffer states of inner Asia that are now emerging will be permanent. According to Mandlebaum, "we have not seen the end of their rivalry." On the other hand, is the view that neither country has much the other needs, with both looking towards Japan and America for capital. Economics is the name of the game in East Asia, and Russia looks like a minor league player to Chinese, coupled with a deep level of cultural suspicion.

On the other hand, the most crucial of the Cold War triangles, the Russia-US-China triangle seems to hold relatively little significance. However, two political games of today, might still substantiate the existence of this triangle 1.the crux of Chinese analysis-- that there is an inherent conflict between Moscow and Washington, on matters of aid and weapons build down which will provide openings for its own diplomacy 2. the weapons issue-- "the US fears China's success in skimming cream of weapons experts from Russia." The latter is a very Cold War type of concern: the issue of military strength, which continues to interlock the three major military powers.

In reference to the US-Japan-Russia triangle, the Japan-Russia part of the triangle still remains quite undeveloped.

Source: Essay UK -

About this resource

This coursework was submitted to us by a student in order to help you with your studies.

Search our content:

  • Download this page
  • Print this page
  • Search again

  • Word count:

    This page has approximately words.



    If you use part of this page in your own work, you need to provide a citation, as follows:

    Essay UK, International Relations Of Strategic Geometry. Available from: <> [26-05-20].

    More information:

    If you are the original author of this content and no longer wish to have it published on our website then please click on the link below to request removal: