83. Memorandum From the Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (Hyland) to Secretary of State Kissinger1

The Chinese Overture to Moscow

Peking’s offer to Moscow of a non-aggression treaty coupled with military disengagement from “disputed” border areas may be an important shift in the Sino-Soviet conflict.2 Unfortunately it is difficult to judge what it really means.

It is a shrewd maneuver, on the eve of a Vladivostok meeting and your trip, to create an impression of possible lessening of Sino-Soviet tensions:

(a) it strengthens the Chinese tactical position vis-à-vis the US, since it was their initiative;

(b) it is consistent with Chinese propaganda trends over the past year downgrading the threat from the USSR;

(c) it also might have the effect of complicating Brezhnev’s hand in that he has another incentive for caution in how far he goes in dealing with us.

The major unknown is whether, in addition to being sharp tactics, this move also reflects a deeper shift in Chinese policy.

—The fact that it coincides with Chou En Lai’s withdrawal from active leadership could mean that it is the harbinger of a more far-reaching shift in Chinese policy. But this is very speculative.

—The fact that it occurs under the nominal tutelage of Teng Hsiao-ping is the more remarkable because he continues in private to be quite anti-Soviet.

—Nor is it plausible that a radical Shanghai group would seriously tilt toward Moscow in Mao’s lifetime.

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Moreover, it seems likely that the Chinese want to counter Soviet efforts to arrange an international Communist conference to excommunicate the Chinese. Thus Peking counters with an ostensibly reasonable public offer making the Soviet case weaker by neutralizing Soviet revelation that the Chinese totally ignored Moscow’s proposal for a non-aggression pact in 1971 and 1973. (The Soviets had reiterated their non-aggression proposal in their October 1 national day message; thus the Chinese are answering in kind.)

A further argument that the Chinese move is tactical rather than strategic is the parallel with a similar Soviet move last year. You will recall that Brezhnev engaged in a similar tactical ploy by offering the Chinese a non use of force agreement shortly before coming to the US in 1973, at the very time he was completing negotiation with you on the prevention of nuclear war agreement.

The net effect, in any case, is that the Chinese seem to be following the logic of the gradual change in their public position toward the US and USSR; they have claimed that the main Soviet threat is in Europe, partly to persuade us that Soviet pressures do not force Peking’s exclusive reliance on the US; now they seem to be saying that the Soviet threat to China is, in fact, not so great or tensions so high as to preclude some normalization of relations with Moscow. This can only make us worry and the timing, just before the trip to the Far East, was probably compelling.

Nevertheless, agreement on the terms of any Soviet-Chinese accord has caused a total breakdown in the border talks in the past, and this new offer still includes the proposal for Soviet disengagement from disputed areas: Moscow cannot accept this without acknowledging the principle that the areas are in fact “disputed”, and also not without reducing the leverage derived from its large military force posed on the border.

It may be that the Chinese perceive the international situation as in such a state of flux that it could work against their interests.

—They have hoped that the US, Europe, NATO, etc. would continue to be a strong adversary for Moscow relieving pressure on Peking.

—They could now see that the West is, in fact, not posing much of a problem for Moscow, that economic problems are splitting the Western coalition, weakening cohesion, etc., that the US is not a counterweight to Soviet pressures.

—In July, before President Nixon’s resignation, a Chinese foreign policy analysis concluded: “In the current international situation US power is showing signs of weakening and the Americans are reluctantly having to curtail their former global reach. . . . China desires a [Page 286] strong, united West Europe both as a bulwark against Soviet expansion and as a future rival, and even a possible substitute for the US.”3

In this case, the Chinese might reason that Brezhnev, having neutralized this Western “bulwark”, will turn back to the Chinese problem, and resume the aggressive course of 1968–69, in a vastly stronger military position.

Thus, Peking might see Vladivostok in this light, and therefore they are beginning a highly complicated and subtle maneuver to tie Brezhnev’s hand, and simultaneously force the US to draw closer to China.

In any case, whether tactical or strategic, the Chinese maneuver carries the message for us that the Sino-Soviet conflict is not a permanent state of affairs. Of course, decades of hostility, of which border problems may not be the most important cause, will not be resolved in the near term. And the Chinese analysis quoted above concludes that “of the two superpowers it is evident that the US poses the lesser threat to China.”

But the present state of Sino-Soviet tensions cannot be taken for granted—certainly not in the fluid period of post-Mao–Chou China, or in an international economic situation that causes most of the main actors to reexamine their interests and alignments.

Attached is a longer INR analysis.4

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Lot File 91D414, Records of Henry Kissinger, 1973–77, Box 5, Nodis Memcons, 1974, Folder 6. Secret; Nodis. No drafting information appears on the memorandum; the attached paper (see footnote 4 below) was drafted by Galen W. Fox in INR/REA and Igor N. Belousovitch in INR/RES.
  2. A National Intelligence Bulletin provided an initial assessment of this development in Sino-Soviet relations on November 8. (National Archives, RG 59, Lot File 77D112, Policy Planning Staff (S/P), Box 375, Director’s Files (Winston Lord), 1969–1977, China Sensitive Chron: Oct. 16–Dec. 31, 1974)
  3. Not further identified.
  4. Dated November 8; attached but not printed.