23. Response to National Security Study Memorandum 141

[Omitted here is the Table of Contents.]


China is not today a major economic power nor, except in certain applications of its land army, is its military power on a par with that [Page 57] of the US and the USSR. States in Asia, however, feel the weight of China’s looming mass, and others believe China has a claim to great power status, including representation in the UN Security Council. Many Americans agree. The US has had a special concern since the 19th Century, complicated by a mystique that has sometimes distorted our sense of what China is and should be; since the Korean War, however, Communist China and the US have been in an adversary relationship. US policies toward China affect to some extent our relations with virtually all third countries. The policies of the US toward most of Asia are closely related to the kind and degree of threats that Peking may present to the US or other countries in the area.

The appropriate US policy towards China depends on answers to the following questions: What are the US interests relating to China? How do the policies of China today affect these interests? How might Chinese policies evolve over the short and long term?2 How can the US advantageously influence that evolution? How does present US China policy—and how would alternative policies—affect our interests with regard to third countries, particularly the Communist and non- Communist states of Asia and the Soviet Union? This paper examines these questions in considering the possible range of US objectives and options in our relations with China.



Current hostility between the US and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) stems from a number of causes including US support for the Republic of China (GRC) and commitment to defend Taiwan, the Korean War, an array of conflicting ideological premises and national objectives, including Peking’s endorsement of armed revolutions, and US defense [Page 58] commitments in Asia. Although China faces serious problems in national economic development, it will continue to be ruled by a Communist government and will gradually become stronger militarily, possibly acquiring a substantial stockpile of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles within the next fifteen years. Peking’s policies toward the United States may moderate somewhat under a post-Mao leadership, but Chinese efforts to assert their influence in Asia will result in rivalry with the US regardless of the nature of the Peking regime. Whatever the PRC’s actual intentions and capabilities, most other Asians are uneasy about mainland China’s long-range objectives in the area, and this concern is reinforced by China’s encouragement of revolutionary movements in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. As China’s power grows, there will be an increasing tendency on the part of other states to recognize the PRC as representing “China”, even at the expense of the GRC.

Chinese Objectives and Capabilities

The present Peking regime wants other Asian states to accommodate their policies to those of the PRC and eventually model their societies and governments on that of Communist China. Peking wants to be treated as a major world power and as the primary source of revolutionary ideological leadership, and to gain control of Taiwan. China has provided a limited input of funds and training for insurgencies around its border and given selective economic assistance to governments whose attitudes it seeks to influence. It has also engaged in similar activity in other LDC’s, especially in Africa. Thus far these efforts have met with little success.

Peking has the ability to launch a major armed attack against any of its immediate neighbors, but we have no evidence of PRC intent to expand its borders or pursue its objectives by armed conquest, except possibly for Taiwan. Peking thus far has not used its limited nuclear weapons capability directly to threaten other Asian states.

The PRC’s ability to attain its objectives is limited by 1) severe economic problems, particularly in agriculture; 2) political confusion internally and ineptness externally imposed by Maoist ideology; and 3) a military capability geared largely to defensive operations by its huge land army and constrained by increasing domestic responsibility for the armed forces.

There is substantial agreement that those aspects of Chinese policy that adversely affect US interests are unlikely to change over the short run and that, in the long run, no matter how Chinese policy may evolve, US and Chinese interests will remain in conflict in substantial respects. However, over the next five to ten years, depending in part on when Mao dies, certain changes are possible. These are presented below in the form of two contrasting alternatives. It is recognized that neither alternative is likely to emerge in toto, as described. What is [Page 59] more likely is an evolution lying between the two extremes, probably incorporating elements of each scenario.

In one possible evolution, the Chinese could move towards a policy of more aggressive action. This could involve:
increasing their support for insurgency movements in Asia and elsewhere;
employing direct nuclear threats;
employing the threat of conventional military action, particularly against Asian neighbors;
launching military operations against the Offshore Islands and/or Taiwan, or against the Soviet Union.
We believe, however, that it is more likely that China’s policy ultimately will moderate, given an international climate conducive to moderation. Domestic economic pressures and the emergence of a more pragmatic leadership in Peking to cope with these pressures would contribute to such an evolution. This could involve:
seeking improved relations with the US and/or Japan, in part as a counter-balance to Soviet pressures;
reducing their concrete support for revolutionary movements;
seeking increased contact with the nations of Asia and membership in international organizations;
developing an interest in measures to control the nuclear arms race.

A question can legitimately be posed as to whether or not it is in US interests for Peking to become more engaged in the international scene. If Peking should choose to pursue a more pragmatic and moderate foreign policy, pressures by the nations of Asia for accommodating Peking and for accepting the PRC into international organizations would build rapidly. Peking’s emergence from its self-imposed isolation would thus pose new challenges for US policy in Asia and would probably result in certain short-term losses to ourselves and our allies. Over the long term, however, evolution of Peking’s policies toward moderation would offer the prospect of increased stability in East Asia. Since it does not lie within the United States’ power to prevent Peking from breaking out of its isolation, the issue posed for the US is whether this evolution will take place in spite of US resistance or whether the US will be seen as willing to accept and live with Peking’s entry into the international community and do what it can to take advantage of the change. US failure to adjust its policies to accord with the changed environment would strengthen the impression of US inflexibility and lend credit to Peking’s rationale for continued hostility towards the US.

The GRC and Taiwan

The Taiwan issue, including US support for the GRC, is a primary obstacle to an improvement in US/PRC relations. Peking seeks not only [Page 60] the removal of the US military presence from the Strait area and Taiwan, but also US acceptance of its claim that Taiwan is an internal matter. Taiwan has occupied an important position in US strategic planning. We are committed by treaty, however, only to the defense of Taiwan and the Pescadores. While US policies over the years have created certain constraints on our actions, the US has made no commitments to the GRC that would require its consent to a change in our relations with the PRC. The GRC’s insistence that it is the legal government of all of China of which it claims Taiwan is a part lies at the heart of the mainlander-dominated political structure on Taiwan. The Taiwanese population of the island is resentful of mainlander domination but undoubtedly prefers the GRC to the PRC. They probably hope that Taiwan will remain separate from the mainland and looking primarily to the US to maintain this separation. While Chiang Kai-shek is in control, the GRC will adhere firmly to its claim to be the only rightful government of China. It may, however, tacitly accommodate to US policies and actions which take into account the fact of Peking’s control over the mainland, and to a limited extent has already done so.

Relationship of North Viet-Nam and North Korea to Chinese Interests

Although North Viet-Nam and North Korea pursue largely independent policies, sometimes in conflict with those of the PRC, Peking has a major national security interest in their continued existence and would almost certainly intervene militarily if the Communist regime of either country were seriously threatened.

Japan and the Soviet Union

The bi-polar situation that characterized Asia in the past is shifting toward a four-sided relationship among the US, the Soviet Union, Japan and Communist China. The Soviet Union has become with the US one of Peking’s two principal antagonists, and Japan’s economic strength and growing sense of nationalism will likely lead it toward an increasingly significant political role in Asia. Although under present circumstances there is little likelihood that Peking will alter its rigid and defiant stance vis-à-vis the US, the USSR, and Japan, a future Chinese leadership may seek, through the manipulation of its relations with these three states, to achieve limited rapprochement with one or more of them.

The possible impact of current Sino-Soviet tensions on US policy toward the Soviet Union and China will be discussed in detail in NSSM 63.

US Policy as a Factor Influencing PRC and Third Country Attitudes

The United States ability to influence the attitude and policies of present Chinese leaders is probably very limited, aside from the restraining [Page 61] influence of US military power. Future Chinese leaders’ perspectives may be altered, however, by considerations of domestic political control, by the need for economic development and by China’s relations with third countries. US actions to alter what Peking perceives as the US “threat” could contribute to this. The impact which US actions toward Peking have on third countries depends upon the geographic proximity of each state to China. Any improvement in Sino- US relations will eventually produce pressures in most countries on China’s periphery for greater accommodation with Peking. This need not be hostile to US interests in the long-run if it allows for continuing US political and economic relations with these countries even though at a reduced level of intimacy than previously.

UN Considerations

The question of China’s representation in the United Nations is inseparable from the claims of both the PRC and the GRC to be the government of all of China and derives its importance largely as a reflection of support for those claims. Although a substantial number of UN members feel that it is a serious defect in the UN system for nearly one quarter of the world’s population not to have a direct spokesman in the UN, there is also widespread unwillingness to deny membership to the GRC. Both the PRC and the GRC, however, strongly oppose any two-Chinas arrangements; and under present circumstances support in the General Assembly is inadequate for adoption of two-Chinas proposals because of opposition by member states concerned with their bilateral relations with Peking or Taipei.

The margin of support for our present position in the General Assembly and Security Council is narrow and could be jeopardized by developments outside the UN, such as increased diplomatic recognition of the PRC.


If there were no conceivable prospect for a change in the attitudes of the leaders of the PRC and the policies they are currently following except in the direction of greater militancy, the choice of options for US policy would be meager and bleak. The key considerations might be when, not whether, a major Sino-US conflict might take place, how the US should best prepare to meet such a challenge, and whether or not consideration should be given to preempting a Chinese attack. Our objectives under such circumstances would focus either on strengthening our own military posture and that of our allies, and on isolating the PRC to the extent possible, or on deciding in advance to reduce or abrogate US commitments and involvement in all areas in which a direct Sino-US conflict might occur.

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There is little reason to believe, however, that this present level of conflict and antagonism will endure indefinitely. US long-range objectives and interests can, therefore, plausibly be set in more flexible terms and in the direction of the achievement of an improved and more relaxed relationship with the PRC. These can be summarized as:

To deter aggression in East Asia and avoid a direct USPRC armed confrontation or conflict, including the outbreak of hostilities in the Taiwan Strait area, while pursuing the objectives below.
To prevent alliance between a mainland government and any other major state directed against the US or other friendly state.
To maintain a balance of influence in East Asia which preserves the independence of the states of the area and enables them to maintain friendly political and economic relations with other countries, including the US.
To obtain Chinese acceptance of such a system of independent states and Peking’s cooperation with other Asian countries in areas of common economic and social activity and interest.
To achieve a relaxation of tensions between the US and the PRC, including participation of the PRC in discussions on measures for arms control and disarmament, and the normalization of US political and economic relations with the PRC.4
To achieve a resolution of the future status of Taiwan without the use of force and, if possible, consistent with the desires of the people on Taiwan.5
To maintain access to Taiwan to the extent necessary for our strategy in meeting our defense commitment to the GRC and, as needed, our strategic requirements elsewhere, or alternatively, to maintain access to Taiwan to the extent necessary for our strategy in meeting our defense commitment to the GRC.6
So long as Taiwan remains separate from the mainland, to encourage continued growth of its economy and an increasing contribution to regional economic development.

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A. Present Strategy

Present strategy has assumed that there is at present only a very limited military threat from China. It also has assumed that, in the short run, US efforts to reduce Chinese hostility toward the US or toward those of its neighbors that are closely aligned with the US will achieve extremely limited results.

In the longer run, it hypothesizes a China that could be militarily more dangerous to the US but with new leaders who could shift the emphasis of Chinese policy in a number of different ways, including to diminished hostility toward the US, and that the US posture may over time be a factor in influencing such change.

The strategy has therefore included two elements: deterrence of any possible direct Chinese threat across its borders or to the US, and limited efforts to suggest to the Chinese the desirability of changing their policies in the direction of a more tolerant view of other states and of the present world political system. Partly because of other policy considerations, the first element has been given somewhat greater stress than the second.

Under our present strategy the US has continued to recognize the Government of the Republic of China as the legal government of China and to support it in the international community. However, in bilateral relations, the US has dealt with the PRC as the government controlling the mainland and with the GRC only concerning the territory over which it has actual control.

We have a commitment to the GRC to assist in the defense of Taiwan and the Pescadores, but we have indicated to both the GRC and the PRC that we oppose the use of force in the Taiwan Strait area by either side. We have sought to maintain access to military bases in Taiwan both for use in meeting US commitments elsewhere in Asia and for general war contingencies.

We have maintained a virtually total embargo on all trade and other financial transactions with Peking and resisted efforts by other countries to liberalize strategic controls.

We have tried to avoid a direct USPRC military confrontation or conflict while supporting defensive military and counterinsurgency efforts of independent nations on China’s periphery.

We have sought to reduce tension, promote reconciliation with the PRC, and encourage greater Chinese contact with the outside world and with the US, through (i) public statements, (ii) relaxation of controls on travel and cultural exchanges, and specific offers for greater USPRC contact, (iii) our ambassadorial conversations in Warsaw, and (iv) avoidance of provocative military actions. We have not extended this policy to embrace UN membership.

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The questions now posed are these: Is such a policy adequate to deal with the long-term problem of Communist China? If not, what are the alternatives?

There are two major variants to our present strategy by which US objectives might be pursued under present circumstances. Both assume that current Chinese policies can be changed but take different approaches toward how US policy can contribute to an acceleration of the change. Neither alternative completely excludes aspects of the other but each is set forth in a sharply differentiated form in order to clarify the differences. It is assumed that a third alternative, total US withdrawal from involvement in the Asian area where US and Chinese interests impinge on one another, would not further the US objectives described in Section IV [III] above.

B. Intensified Deterrence and Isolation

This strategy would be based on calculations that (1) the strain of repeated policy failures and of growing frustration over China’s isolation would cause a post-Mao leadership to reassess China’s role in international affairs and alter its policies in a manner that would reduce the conflict between the US and Chinese objectives, and that (2) US efforts to improve relations with Peking have not succeeded in leading China to perceive a need to moderate her policies. To limit Peking’s success in pursuit of present policies and strengthen the credibility of the US commitment to its Asian allies, the US could increase its military and economic support of Asian countries to demonstrate that insurgencies supported and encouraged by Peking will fail; strengthen US offensive and defensive capability to demonstrate to Peking that its development of advanced weapons will not affect US deterrent capability, and strive to convince Peking that it cannot gain acceptance into the international community on its present terms.

Opponents of this approach argue that present deterrent capability against China is sufficient and that further attempts to isolate Peking may well increase the present dangers which Peking poses. According to this view, there is no prospect that China’s present form of government will be changed by force, and it is impossible effectively to isolate a nation as large as China.

C. Reduction of PRC’s Isolation and Points of USPRC Conflict

This strategy would be based on a calculation that (1) a relaxation of external pressures will be most likely to cause a post-Mao leadership to reassess US attitudes and intentions toward China and China’s role in international affairs and that (2) present US policy has given too much weight to deterrence and not enough to steps designed to open up for Peking the possibility of and benefits from greater cooperative involvement in the world. To encourage this reassessment, the US, [Page 65] while maintaining its defense commitments and continuing to deter any possible overt Chinese attack against US allies in Asia, could gradually de-emphasize the military aspect of our containment of the PRC, unilaterally reduce or eliminate economic and political measures designed to isolate Peking, and acquiesce in the PRC’s fuller participation in the international community.

Opponents of this approach argue that unilateral US gestures without demanding corresponding conciliatory steps by Peking will be taken as an indication that the PRC’s present militant approach has been successful and would add to existing frictions with our Asian allies. It is further argued that, since there is small likelihood of an early change in Peking’s attitudes, China’s greater involvement in the world community would simply disrupt present efforts toward international cooperation and complicate US relations with third countries.

[Omitted here is an 11-page discussion of Policy Approaches in Pursuit of the Alternative Strategies. The report also includes eight annexes: Premises and Factors, Modes of Military Deterrence, the GRC and Taiwan, Taiwan as a U.S. Military Base, Offshore Islands, Diplomatic Contact and Relations with the PRC, China and the UN, and Trade.]

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–023, NSC Meeting (San Clemente), 8/14/69, Briefings: Korea; China. Secret. This is the final version of the response to NSSM 14 (Document 4). The document was largely drafted in EA. Comments on early drafts are in National Archives, RG 59, EA/ROC Files: Lot 74 D 25, Political Files, NSSM 14. An early draft was discussed in an NSC Senior Review Group meeting on May 15 and returned to Brown and the Interdepartmental Group for revisions (see Document 13). Talking points for the President and Kissinger, an outline of NSSM 14 prepared by the NSC staff, and an analysis of U.S. China policy were prepared for an August 14 NSC meeting to be held at San Clemente, California. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–023, NSC Meeting (San Clemente), 8/14/69, Briefings: Korea; China) An August 11 memorandum from Haig to Kissinger stated that the response to NSSM 14 “will be designed primarily as an informal update for members of the Security Council.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 334, Items to Discuss with the President) NSSM 14 was superseded by NSSM 106, China Policy (Document 97) and NSSM 124, Next Steps Toward the People’s Republic of China (Document 117).
  2. “Short-” and “long-term” are not easily defined. They could be interpreted as Mao and post-Mao era, or in some cases, as pre- and post-Viet Nam settlement. [Footnote in the source text.]
  3. For a fuller discussion of premises and factors involved in US China policy, see Tab A. [Footnote in the source text. Tab A, attached but not printed, is entitled “Premises and Factors.”]
  4. For a discussion of major alternative policies and problems for the US in improving relations with Peking, see Tab F, Diplomatic Contacts and Relations with the PRC. [Footnote in the source text. None of the tabs is printed.]
  5. The relationship between mainlanders and Taiwanese on Taiwan and the complex problem that this presents in relation to other US objectives makes it desirable at the present time to avoid choosing definitively how best to achieve this objective; by the ultimate political unification of Taiwan and the mainland; the establishment in some way of an independent Taiwan state; or the indefinite continuation of the present situation. For a discussion of major alternative policies and problems in this regard, see Tab C, The GRC and Taiwan. [Footnote in the source text.]
  6. For a discussion of major alternative policies and problems for the US in resolving the Taiwan question, see Tab D, Taiwan as a US Military Base. [Footnote in the source text.]