296. Action Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (Hummel) and the Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs (Hartman) to Secretary of State Kissinger 1

Sino-Soviet Relations: Keeping Our Cool

The Problem

The Soviets are seeking actively to cultivate the impression that there has been a softening in the PRC attitude toward Moscow and that significant changes in Sino-Soviet relations may be in store. They are doing so, in part at least, to worry the US and to gain leverage in their dealings with us. We need to minimize our vulnerability to such manipulation.


INR has sent you a special analysis (Tab 1)2 of recent developments in Sino-Soviet relations that indicates these relations are still frozen and that the PRC attitude on the question of relations with Moscow has not changed. That conclusion has been further justified by the walkout of the Soviet ambassador from a diplomatic dinner in Peking over criticism of the Soviet Union’s Africa policy by PRC Vice Premier Li Hsien-nien, who went on to criticize the Soviets for spreading false rumors of improving Sino-Soviet relations.

The reality, as we see it, is as follows:

—Mao’s death and the subsequent changes in the Chinese leadership have not produced any immediate change in the Chinese approach to dealing with the Soviet Union. Indeed, Chinese leaders at the highest level have gone out of their way to emphasize that there will be no change in Mao’s domestic and foreign policy line, specifically including relations with the Soviet Union. Although Peking remains prepared in principle to improve state relations with the USSR, China’s top leaders have clearly signaled that they do not consider such improvements likely.

—The Soviets, on the other hand, are seeking actively to cultivate the impression that significant changes in Sino-Soviet relations may be in store, partly in the hope, presumably, of gaining leverage in [Page 1101] Soviet-US relations. Moscow immediately toned down its anti-Chinese propaganda following Mao’s death, and the Soviets have made public gestures to demonstrate interest in a more normal relationship with Peking. Soviet diplomats are peddling the line that there has been a softening in the PRC attitude toward Moscow.

While Moscow is, for its own reasons, deliberately distorting the facts, this does not mean that we think matters remain as before. Mao’s role in shaping relations between Moscow and Peking cannot be lightly dismissed, and his death may eventually open possibilities for incremental improvements in state relations between Moscow and Peking. These will take time, however, and are not likely to affect the fundamental relationship, in which factors other than personality play the predominant role. Moreover, as our Embassy in Moscow has vigorously (and perceptively) argued (see the telegram at Tab 2),3 we should not underestimate the constraints that prevent Moscow from making the sort of substantive gestures to Peking that would stand the greatest chance of influencing Chinese attitudes.

We doubt that the sort of improvements in Sino-Soviet relations that might be achieved by the two sides alone—e.g. more correct behavior in bilateral contacts, toned down polemics, expanded trade, and even (at the extreme) progress in the border talks, troop reductions on the border, or a resumption of summit meetings—will alter the basic geo-political considerations that underpin our current relationship with Peking. For this to happen would require either a basic (and unlikely) change in Soviet global behavior or specific actions by us that would either cause Peking once again to treat the United States as the primary threat or that would gravely compromise our utility in Chinese eyes as a counterweight to the USSR. We do, therefore, have a degree of control over those circumstances that could lead to a fundamental qualitative change in the Sino-Soviet relationship.

We are not, on the other hand, in a position to prevent, or even impede, most of the bilateral actions by Moscow and Peking that could restore a modicum of normality to their state relations. But since these will not—if we conduct ourselves wisely—presage a change in the basic relationship, we should neither be unduly worried about this possibility nor set it as a goal of our policy to block such moves. To do so might not only prove unsuccessful but by telegraphing our sense of insecurity would make us more vulnerable to manipulation.

We do not yet see signs that Peking is seeking to play on US fears of a Sino-Soviet rapprochement, as Moscow is clearly trying to do. For Peking to follow suit at this stage would represent a contradictory [Page 1102] strand in its present policy of seeking to warn all and sundry against Soviet machinations. We also believe that Peking would not move in this direction unless it made a sharply negative assessment of the new Administration’s attitude toward the US role in the world (i.e., not strong enough) or such issues as normalization and dealing with the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, Peking’s awareness of its potential leverage is implied by Li Hsien-nien’s ironical remark to Senator Mansfield that there are those who “seem mortally afraid” that Mao’s death will lead to a change in Sino-Soviet relations.4

It is important, therefore, that we position ourselves now to minimize any expectations in Peking or Moscow that they can exploit step by step improvements of their state relations in their bilateral relations with us. Above all, this means that in assessing new situations as they arise, we should avoid overreacting to minor adjustments in their relations or conveying the impression that we fear our own position in the global equilibrium would be threatened.

Specifically, this means:

—We should avoid in our public statements any implication that we are opposed in principle to positive developments in Sino-Soviet relations. If we do not need to go so far as to wish them well, we should at least strike a posture of quiet confidence (a posture which we feel is fully justified by the realities). We should also instruct our diplomatic officials in the field to reflect this posture in their contacts with other governments (Tab 3).5

—In dealing with the press, we should continue (as you did at Williamsburg)6 to try to induce a greater degree of realism than has characterized many recent commentaries on Sino-Soviet relations. In essence, we should neither predict improvements, deny their possibility, nor appear preoccupied with the potential consequences for our own position.

—To the extent that the beginnings of a limited thaw in the other side of the triangle might affect our own interests, we can best safeguard them by sustaining movement and vitality in our relations with both Moscow and Peking. Under these circumstances, moreover, an overt public tilt toward one or the other, in the absence of specific—and [Page 1103] sufficient—provocation, would undercut our ability to use our own bilateral leverage to deter both Moscow and Peking from moving toward an overtly anti-US posture should their relationship show signs of new life.


That you approve the telegram at Tab 3 to our diplomatic posts abroad instructing them to maintain a posture of calm confidence in response to rumors of a Sino-Soviet rapprochement and giving them facts with which to rebut distortions of Sino-Soviet developments.7

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Lot File 81D286, Records of the Office of the Counselor, Box 9, POL 2—China. Secret. Drafted by J. Stapleton Roy in EA/PRCM and William J. Kushlis in EUR/SOV, cleared by Lord and Sonnenfeldt, and forwarded through Sonnenfeldt and Habib.
  2. Dated November 10; attached but not printed.
  3. Telegram 17617 from Moscow, November 10; attached but not printed.
  4. Senators Mansfield and Glenn met with Chinese Vice Premier Li Xiannian in Beijing on October 9. A memorandum of conversation of the meeting was transmitted in telegram 2072 from Beijing, October 13. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy Files)
  5. Draft telegram attached but not printed.
  6. On November 16, Kissinger attended the annual meeting of the North Atlantic Assembly in Williamsburg, Virginia. For the text of both his formal remarks and the ensuing question-and-answer session, see Department of State Bulletin, December 13, 1976, pp. 701–713.
  7. Kissinger approved this recommendation; the instructions were sent in telegram 289646 to all posts, November 25. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy Files)