From romantic triangle to marriage? Washington-Beijing-Taipei relations in historical comparison

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This paper applies the "strategic triangle" approach to the relations among Washington, Beijing, and Taipei in the post-Cold War period. The main argument is that the strategic triangle among the three has been gradually shifting from a "romantic triangle" with the United States playing the role of an "unwilling pivot," to a "marriage" between the United States and Taiwan - although whether that status can be sustained remains to be seen. The cause of this shift is mainly structural: an unwilling pivot tends to tilt toward the weaker of the two wings, particularly when the stronger wing is emerging as a threat. In making this argument, the paper draws a historical analogy with the Berlin-St. Petersburg-Vienna triangle between 1870 and 1914. In that triangle, the unwilling pivot, Germany, first adopted an impartial attitude toward Russia and Austria-Hungary. As the duel between St. Petersburg and Vienna intensified over the Balkans, however, Germany was forced to take sides and bind its fate with the Hapsburg Empire. A comparison of the two triangles - including their modes of entry, operation, and exit - reveals a strong tendency in the Washington-Beijing-Taipei triangle to evolve following the historical pattern of the pre-WWI Berlin-St. Petersburg-Vienna triangle. Based on this comparison, we can conclude an unwilling pivot should find that the costs associated with pivot playing are likely too high, and entry into a partnership with one of the wings is deemed more favorable. It remains to be seen whether a formal marriage will come about between the United States and Taiwan, as it did between Germany and Austria-Hungary prior to WWI.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)113-159
Number of pages47
JournalIssues and Studies
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2005


  • Bismarck
  • Cross-Strait relations
  • Strategic triangle
  • U.S. China policy
  • World War I


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