95. National Intelligence Estimate1

NIE 13–7–70

[Omitted here is the Table of Contents.]



China’s return to active diplomacy raises new questions about the direction of its foreign policy. After four years in which the internal preoccupations of the Cultural Revolution thoroughly overshadowed foreign relations, Peking is now moving to repair its international image and to exploit new opportunities. In attempting to estimate how China will play this new role in international politics over the next year or so, this paper will examine Peking’s options in terms of those policy factors which are most likely to remain constant and those which are subject to greater variations in response to domestic or external events.

It must be acknowledged at the outset that we have remarkably little information on the decision-making processes in Peking. Thus, estimates of short-run tactical moves are susceptible to considerable error. As in the past, sudden twists and turns in Chinese policies will probably continue to surprise us. But in the broader perspective of long-range goals and basic capabilities, this paper attempts to set useful guidelines on the course that China is likely to follow in adapting to the outside world.


With the waning of the radical and frenetic phase of the Cultural Revolution, Peking has substantially recouped its earlier diplomatic position and is moving to compete for influence in new areas. Its successes to date—due in large part to the receptivity of other nations to a more normal relationship with the Chinese—have been impressive, especially in areas of secondary importance to Peking. In areas of prime concern, i.e., the Soviet Union, the US, Southeast Asia and Japan, progress has been marginal and Peking’s policy less sure.
Many domestic and foreign obstacles stand in the way of achieving Peking’s basic goals, whether these be China as a great power [Page 242] and leader of the world revolution or as a more traditional but highly nationalistic country concerned primarily with Asian interests.
On the domestic side, stability and steady growth in basic elements of strength—economic, military, political—are far from assured. Even in the best of circumstances, China’s marginal economy will serve to limit its maneuverability in foreign affairs. A great deal of work remains to be done to restore effective government administration, and to rebuild a Communist party. So long as Mao lives, the possibility of disruptive campaigns exist and his death could usher in a period of leadership uncertainty and intense preoccupation with internal affairs.
Externally, China’s aspirations remain blocked directly or indirectly by the realities of the international scene including: the vastly superior power and hostility of the USSR, its most immediate threat as well as rival for ideological leadership in the Communist world; the US presence and US commitments around the periphery of China; and the growth in economic strength and self-confidence of another traditional rival, Japan.
Even should the Chinese regime wish to alter its basic foreign policy approach and use its growing military force aggressively in peripheral areas, its options would be limited by the risk of provoking one or another of the superpowers. From Peking’s point of view, military adventures in Southeast Asia, against Taiwan, in Korea, or in the Soviet Far East would be needlessly risky and the potential prize not worth the game. Peking does, however, have room, even in present circumstances, for some maneuver directly between the two great powers as well as around their flanks or under their guard in Southeast Asia, the Near East, Africa, and even in Eastern Europe.
At present, the Chinese see the USSR as their major military threat. By accepting negotiations with the Soviets, cooling border tensions, and improving their diplomatic image, the Chinese apparently judge that they have reduced the risk of hostilities with the Soviets. There is little prospect, however, of a genuine rapprochement emerging from the present Sino-Soviet talks. But both sides are apparently concerned that their dispute not end in a military test. Thus, as long as they both continue to exercise the present degree of military caution, there is likely to be some improvement in diplomatic and trade relations but little movement in border talks. As long as Mao lives there is almost no chance of significant compromise on the ideological questions.
With the US, Peking has moved from its previous intransigence to a more flexible approach better designed to exploit the Sino-US relationship for Chinese purposes. The Chinese hope to unsettle the Soviets by playing on their fears of a Sino-American rapprochement as well as exploit the potential for changes in the balance of forces in East Asia resulting from the drawdown of the US military presence. In pursuing [Page 243] its new flexibility, however, Peking does not expect an early major improvement in Sino-US relations and any small improvements are likely to be limited to marginal issues.
Japan poses special problems to Peking because it too is an Asian power, is outstripping China in economic growth, and is strongly resistant to Maoist subversion or Chinese threats. And the Chinese, who remember Japanese imperialism in China during World War II, wonder what threat the Japanese may become to their security over the long term and fear Tokyo will one day take on the role of protector of Taiwan. The Chinese answer so far has been to continue with a rather rigid and vituperative propaganda attack on Japan’s leaders, their policies, and their alleged ambitions in Asia. While this may impress the North Koreans and some people in Southeast Asia, it does little good for China’s cause in Japan itself. Nonetheless, and despite the burgeoning growth in Sino-Japanese trade, any basic shift in China’s approach to Japan seems unlikely in the present ideological climate in Peking.
In Southeast Asia, Peking’s earlier fear that the Indochinese war might spill over into China seems to have lessened. Indeed, the Chinese seem to believe that the US is being forced gradually to withdraw its military presence from the region and that this process will eventually improve the prospects for Chinese influence. Rather than use overt military force to exploit possible developments in this area, Peking’s more likely course will be to increase its support to subversive and insurgent activity. The Chinese will seek to maintain their role as revolutionary leaders without exposing themselves to undue cost or risk. In addition they will rely on conventional diplomacy when this suits their needs. There is abundant evidence that Peking feels no need to set deadlines and has no schedule to fulfill; it is clearly prepared for the long haul.
In the longer run, if Mao’s successors follow a more steady and pragmatic course, they are likely to have greater success than Mao in expanding China’s political influence and acceptance. We cannot be sure, of course, how future leaders will see their situation, and it is possible that they will be prepared to employ China’s developing power in a more aggressive manner. We think it more likely, however, that they will continue to focus their foreign policy on diplomacy at the overt level and on subversion at the covert level. The open use of military force will probably be judged needlessly risky.
While we do not doubt that China would fight tenaciously if invaded, we see no compelling factors moving Peking toward a policy of expansionism, or even a higher level of risk-taking. For all its verbal hostility and latent aggressiveness, neither the present nor the probable future leadership is likely to see foreign adventures as a solution to China’s problems.
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[Omitted here is the 12-page Discussion section of NIE 13–7–70, which includes the following chapters: I. Foreign Policy: Some Principles and Priorities, and II. Prospects and Contingencies.]

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, INR/EAP Files: Lot 90 D 110, National Intelligence Estimates, NIE 13–7–70. Secret; Controlled Dissem. According to a note on the covering sheet, the Central Intelligence Agency and intelligence organizations of the Departments of State and Defense, AEC, and NSA participated in the preparation of this estimate. All members of the USIB concurred with the estimate on November 12 except for the representative from the FBI, who abstained on the grounds that the subject was outside his jurisdiction. For the full text of this NIE, see Tracking the Dragon, pp. 583–599.