129. Response to National Security Study Memorandum 1241

[Omitted here is the Table of Contents.]



On April 19, 1971, the President directed:

“a study of possible diplomatic initiatives which the United States might take toward the People’s Republic of China (PRC) with the objective of furthering the improvement of relations.” NSSM 124 further directed that “The study should assume that there will be no change in our policy of recognition of or support for the Government of the Republic of China.”

The introduction of this response to the President is an analysis of the principal factors in USPRC relations which have bearing on the selection and timing of the next initiatives.

This is followed by three groups of initiatives which the President might wish to approve ranging from some which could be unilaterally [Page 324] undertaken at any time with minimal preparation to those which require the concurrence of the PRC for implementation.2



I. The Present Situation

For over a decade we have tried to get the People’s Republic of China to defer the central problem between us—Taiwan—and to discuss at Warsaw what Peking called “minor questions,” various means of contact between our two peoples. We have sought these contacts in the hope that better understanding might gradually move us toward resolution of more fundamental problems between us. Only in the past two years, however, have we made significant unilateral moves in an effort to bring this about. Peking has now acted too—and, perhaps significantly, in the one area wherein we so far have permitted an “equal and comparable” arrangement, that of travel.

Both sides have doubtless recognized the danger inherent in nearly two decades of deeply inimical confrontation. In the present changed context, both sides seem at last to view the rigidities long associated with that confrontation as being unnecessarily self-limiting.

The events of April in Sino-US relations are significant. But they do not yet touch on fundamentals. This paper presents steps to stimulate further normal contacts between China and the United States in order to test whether we can now move on toward a more fundamental regularization of our relations.

II. PRC Motives and Tactics

Peking’s “people’s diplomacy” towards the US is a dramatic departure. But it does not necessarily mean that the Chinese leaders have changed their hostile view of the US or revised their major foreign policy goals—recognition as the dominant power in Asia, accommodation of other Asian states to PRC policies, elimination of the Nationalist Government, and the withdrawal of US military presence from Taiwan and the Asian mainland.

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The new approach to the US forcefully underlines another policy goal—recognition of China as a world power.

Probable Motives

Peking wishes both to raise the prospect of a dialogue with the United States as a warning and lever against the Soviet Union and to erode the GRC’s international and domestic position. Peking’s “reasonableness” toward the United States is certainly designed to induce other countries to recognize the PRC and to garner support for entry into the UN on its own terms—GRC expulsion. Additional considerations are to move the Japanese Government towards accommodation, and to increase domestic US pressure for changes in US China policy.

International Chinese Developments. Most of the Chinese leadership appears to have backed the post-Cultural Revolution drive for a more normal international status. But there have been enough disruptions in the pattern of Chinese behavior, particularly in the domestic area, to suggest serious policy debates. The moderate line appears firmly in control, but the radicals undoubtedly continue to exercise a restraining influence on friendly approaches to the United States, especially in areas where this might involve substantive Chinese concessions. Conceivably, visible failures in the current international initiatives could contribute to a reversal of line.

The American Factor. If satisfied by the degree of success they see from their initial step, the Chinese may take bolder actions, including a resumption of the Warsaw Talks or some other form of official contact with the United States, though this is by no means certain. We should not expect Peking’s interest in building the momentum of its American policy to lead it to accept any major undercutting of its bargaining position on the Taiwan issue.

Some US actions could cause Peking to hesitate in its new approach or even turn “people’s diplomacy” into an activity intended mainly to embarrass the United States Government. Examples include:

  • —A major US escalation in Southeast Asia.
  • —The transfer of US military facilities and functions from Okinawa to Taiwan.
  • —Formal US adoption of a “two Chinas” position.
  • —Vigorous US leadership of a campaign clearly intended to block PRC admission to the United Nations.

The Chinese will be acutely sensitive to questions of equality of treatment, especially as compared with the USSR. To avoid appearing in the supplicant’s role by rapid response to US initiatives, they may not publicize trade activities and may be embarrassed by public or semi-public discussions of scenarios for improving relations that [Page 326] appeared to emanate from official US sources. To gain maximum impact on US public opinion, Chinese moves may be correlated with US Congressional hearings and the 1972 election campaign, and be directed toward individuals seeking more rapid changes in US policy.

The International Context. Peking will attempt to secure maximum international support on Chirep and minimize US opposition. If they fail to obtain their seat, the Chinese would be likely to increase their pressures again the following spring. If they win, they would be better positioned to make additional moves to capitalize on their new prestige and on Taipei’s discomfiture.

Other developments which could quicken their pace would include a dramatic increase in Sino-Soviet tensions, a buildup of pressure in Japan to change its China policy, and a breakdown of morale on Taiwan. The new Chinese course risks displeasure in Hanoi and Pyongyang. Over time, unhappiness in these quarters could cause Peking to hesitate, especially if its initiative does not appear to be bearing fruit.

III. US Objectives and Strategy


Objectives. Some US and PRC objectives overlap—examples are allowing US–Chinese relations to develop as a way of offsetting Soviet pressures on each of us and avoiding armed conflict between the United States and China. That renewal of contact between us may permit us to work from these common interests toward mutual accommodation in areas of disagreement is the premise underlying our basic policy of encouraging PRC entry into the world community and improving our bilateral relations.

On the other hand, we intend to continue our policy of recognition of, and support for, the GRC, and we will have to assure ourselves at each turn that USGRC relations do not suffer to the point of jeopardizing our most fundamental objectives toward Taiwan—insuring its security from external attack and maintaining necessary military access for ourselves. Much will have to happen between the PRC and us before this minimum is in danger, but it is within those limitations that our next steps toward the PRC must take place.

Not all of the US objectives that might be sought via better USPRC relations (or even unrequited US initiatives toward Peking) relate strictly to the GRC and PRC. And some may be even more important than those already mentioned:

  • —Preserving the present US–Japanese relationship. Judging from reactions so far (see below), reducing USPRC tensions can serve this objective, though that depends greatly on how well we handle the process.
  • —Maintaining public support for our foreign policy. Even the first, uncertain indication of a thaw between Washington and Peking has [Page 327] produced strongly favorable public reactions, both internationally and at home. This strengthens the credibility of our expressed desire to deal peacefully with all nations, offsetting antipathies toward the Indochina war. Thereby, it increases our ability to deal with the whole spectrum of other international issues.


Strategy. Our handling of the Table Tennis episode has shown that the United States Government welcomes—and does not fear— Peking’s new flexibility. Additional relatively innocuous steps by us and an amiable attitude toward further moves by Peking can serve the same purpose.

The Mix of “People’s” and Governmental Diplomacy. Peking is faced with certain conflicts in its objectives:

  • —It wants to recover Taiwan, which pits it against US policy.
  • —It wants improved relations with the USG, if for no other reason than for leverage to use on the Soviets (and perhaps the Japanese).

The conflict is reflected in Peking’s current resort to popular, as opposed to governmental, diplomacy vis-à-vis the US.

Popular diplomacy serves both objectives—to some extent. By appealing to US and world opinion on a people-to-people basis, Peking improves its prospects for getting the GRC expelled from the UN. Whether this succeeds or not, however, Peking will still confront the US defense commitment to Taiwan. Peking expects its popular diplomacy to help here too, because public pressure will force the US Government to make further concessions. This in turn could ultimately lead to better USPRC governmental relations—which Peking surely requires if China’s position with respect to the Soviets is to be enhanced in any substantial and enduring way.

Peking may hope for this strategy to work. But in the short-run it cannot expect much on the government-to-government front if it requires first that the United States sever its ties with Taiwan. And it has problems with the Soviet Union now. To pursue both its current objectives, therefore, it cannot give absolute priority to the Taiwan issue. While it may show relative toughness toward us on Taiwan between now and the UN vote next fall, it will hardly wish to foreclose all its options on the governmental side.

Our tactical dilemma is similar to Peking’s. We would like to improve relations—without making crucial concessions on the Taiwan issue. Peking’s popular diplomacy offers an opening for us, but it is more advantageous for us to be able to deal also on a government-to-government basis.

  • —The latter would show Peking that any improvement in relations was a deliberate act of USG policy, not something caused by popular pressure on the Administration.
  • —It would erode Peking’s policy of focusing on a “solution of the Taiwan issue” to the preemption of all other business in its governmental dealings with us.
  • —It would move us more quickly toward a relationship in which our most serious objectives can be pursued, since these are matters that must be dealt with between governments.

It should, therefore, be US policy to try to move our contacts more into a governmental plane or to involve the government in some appropriate way in people-to-people contacts. This has been done, for example, in the handling so far of the Table Tennis visits (through the President’s reception of Steenhoven, official facilitation of visas and invitations, etc.).

Conciliatory governmental gestures by us, even if not taken up by Peking, would offset attempted PRC pressures on the US Government through purely people-to-people contacts. More importantly, approaching Peking on a governmental basis will probe the relative priority it actually accords the Taiwan issue as an obstacle to better USPRC relations.

This does not mean that we should take no steps on the Taiwan issue until the returns from other moves are in. If only for reasons of consistency Peking must press seriously for something on the Taiwan issue. But we can start modestly with additional steps in store should developments merit our taking them.

We should thus be careful not to convey to Peking by words, acts or even nuance, that our objective is to obtain PRC agreement to “put the Taiwan issue aside.” On the contrary we are neither unwilling nor afraid to discuss it. (This position would be conveyed, when and if appropriate, privately and to the PRC only.)

The Options Available—Moving by Graded Steps. The options presented in this paper are divided into three groups. Each group represents an increase in seriousness of impact along several fronts:

  • —The groups would be progressively more difficult to accept for the GRC and the Soviet Union, each of whom opposes reduced USPRC tensions.
  • —Congress and public opinion in the United States and elsewhere will probably also react differently to the moves in the successive groups. Some of the later moves, for example, would be substantial departures from long existing patterns. Reactions will be easier to judge as the earlier, more innocuous moves are made.
  • —The effect of these moves will be to press the PRC increasingly to deal with us on a government-to-government basis. The range of moves included in each group is intended to permit selection of a mix with enough interest to Peking to bring it along. Actual choice of what, if any, mix to implement will, of course, depend on the overall circumstances of the time.
  • —The moves in the first group are innocuous in their effect on US security interests, the likelihood of adverse domestic or international [Page 329] reactions and the like. Some moves in the second and especially the third group, however, become increasingly steps we should take only as merited by other developments, especially (but not exclusively) PRC reactions to our earlier moves. This is particularly important in the military field, and steps challenging the GRC’s legitimacy.

The impact of these moves will vary with their quantity and timing. Many steps taken simultaneously will have more impact—for a while at least—than would the same steps spaced out. Bunching them may also leave the problem of what to do for an encore. If many innocuous steps are taken together, the first impact may be great, but the later impact of more consequential steps may be reduced. The public and other governments will have grown more accustomed to movement between the United States and the PRC. Accordingly, this might increase our room for maneuver later on.

Chinese Responses. Peking is more apt to take small steps to improve atmospherics and maintain a sense of momentum than to propose or undertake major new departures affecting Sino-US relations.

It will probably want to move cautiously, assessing the effect of each step it takes before moving to the next. Among the steps open to the Chinese are the following:

  • —Favorable comments on US attitudes and initiatives by such leaders as Chou En-lai.
  • —Private remarks by Chinese officials designed to reach US officials which assess the possibility of further improvement in bilateral relations in a realistic and generally favorable light.
  • —Increased contact by Chinese diplomatic officials stationed abroad with Americans in official and unofficial positions.
  • —An alteration in the tone and content of Chinese domestic and foreign propaganda resulting in a marked diminution of anti- American themes. Personal attacks on President Nixon have already largely ceased in Peking’s external media; further steps in this direction are possible.
  • —Admission to China of US public figures, for example, US Congressmen, with whom Chinese officials could hold responsible if unofficial discussions.
  • —Admission of relatives of the US citizens still held in Chinese jails for visits.
  • —Relaxation of PRC restrictions on trade and resumption of Sino- US talks in Warsaw or elsewhere. Trade moves are likely to be initially rather small and may depend in large part on Peking’s reading as to whether or not the US continues to discriminate against China in relation to the USSR. Chinese interest in resuming the Warsaw dialogue would probably depend on Peking’s reading of the desirable mix between “people’s diplomacy” and government-to-government contacts, as discussed above.

One obviously desirable Chinese response would be the release of some or all of the four US prisoners still held in Chinese jails. Peking would probably react negatively if it came to feel that the United States [Page 330] was making further improvement in relations dependent on the release of the prisoners. On the other hand, they have in the past released foreign nationals held in Chinese jails as an indication that relations with the country in question were already improving and could improve further. This approach was employed most recently in the case of Great Britain. But even if Peking were to decide to release some or all of the prisoners, they are likely to do so later rather than sooner, as progress is made in bilateral relations.

Chinese responses, however, are only one element in assessing the usefulness of US initiatives. The options set forth in the first group and most of those listed in the second group are really not dependent on specific moves by Peking. Favorable domestic and world impact or problems relating to Soviet-US relations might make some or all of these options desirable, even in the absence of a clear and favorable Chinese move. The options in the third group, however, generally require some specific and favorable movement on the part of Peking. These responses are listed under the individual options themselves.

Constraints. In taking additional steps toward improved relations with the PRC we must avoid their being misinterpreted by Peking and our allies as indicating US weakness. If so construed, they might stimulate the PRC to step up pressures rather than improve relations. This is especially so in the military sphere. An excessive unilateral reduction of our close-in military presence, for example, could be misunderstood by Peking as meaning we would not resist Communist aggression. It could leave us less prepared to counter such aggression should it occur. And it could undermine the confidence of our allies. Given these uncertainties about Chinese motivation, initiatives which might be considered in the military area should be confined to those which do not detract from essential US and allied military capabilities. Significant changes in the size and nature of our military presence in Asia have already been taken over the past several years. Reductions in the US troop strength in Korea and Southeast Asia, the reduction of base facilities in Japan, the reversion of Okinawa, discontinuance of the Taiwan Strait Patrol, reduction in MAAG China strength, withdrawal of KC–135 tankers from Taiwan, and contemplated reductions in the Philippines present a pattern which, together with the lowered profile called for by the Nixon Doctrine, constitute a major shift in the thrust of our military policy in Asia. Given US specific bilateral commitments to various nations on the periphery of the PRC, as well as the more general commitments expressed in the Nixon Doctrine, further dramatic initiatives in the field of military reductions should not be considered except with all due caution. For example, a sudden drop in the US military presence on Taiwan that exceeded reductions consonant with our withdrawals [Page 331] from Viet-Nam should probably not be taken in the absence of other justifying circumstances.

An additional constraint exists by virtue of the lack of governmental contact between the US and the PRC. In the case of the USSR, because of the existence of diplomatic relations and the various post- World War II multinational military groups and committees on which both the US and the USSR have been represented, it has been possible to negotiate reciprocal arrangements to dampen risks to vital interests. In the absence of formal USPRC contacts, initiatives must be unilateral and intentions made apparent by gestures and pronouncements. Such a situation is extremely fragile and is easily subject to misinterpretation. This danger may be reduced to the extent that we are successful in drawing the PRC into government-to-government contacts. US initiatives on the military side which facilitate such contacts, without endangering our essential military capabilities, would therefore be helpful.

The military options in the first and second groups, if taken under the circumstances specified for each, are not expected to produce the various undesirable consequences discussed in this Introduction. Those in the third group should probably not be taken without further review, as is more fully explained below.

[Omitted here are the last two sections of the Introduction (Chirep Implications, and Third Country Reactions), Group I Options, Group II Options, Group III Options, and Annex to Option on Blocked Chinese Assets and U.S. Claims.]

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, S/S Files: Lot 80 D 212, National Security Files, NSSM 124. Top Secret. Brown, Acting Chairman of the NSC Interdepartmental Group for East Asia and the Pacific, submitted this report to the SRG on May 28. (Memorandum from Brown to Kissinger; ibid.) According to an August 24 memorandum from Helms to Kissinger, the CIA prepared an Intelligence Annex to NSSM 124 that assessed reconnaissance operations involving China with an eye toward their reduction or elimination. (Central Intelligence Agency, Job 84–B00513R, DCI/Executive Registry Files, NSSMs) According to a “NSSM Status Reports Prepared by S/PC,” from December 1971, NSSM 124 was “completed” after it was submitted to the Senior Review Group, and no NSC meeting was planned. (National Archives, RG 59, Lot 73 D 288, General Files on NSC Matters, NSC Under Secretaries Memoranda, 1971) NSSM 124 is printed as Document 117.
  2. Options in Group I included the following: Cultural, Scientific, and Industrial Exchange; Transportation: Sea and Air; Trade Initiatives; Trade Promotion; Arms Control; and U.S. Military Presence on Taiwan. Group II included Cultural and Scientific Exchange; Trade Promotion, U.S. Presence in the PRC; Status of the GRC; Arms Control; and U.S. Military Presence on Taiwan. Group III included Official Trade Missions; Status of the GRC; Status of Taiwan; Blocked Chinese Assets and U.S. Claims; U.S. Presence in the PRC, Arms Control; and U.S. Military Presence in the Taiwan Area. Each option included a brief discussion of principal advantages, principal disadvantages, and implementation.