127. Memorandum From Secretary of State Kissinger to President Ford 1


  • Possible Approaches to Your China Trip

As I have indicated in my reports to you,2 I believe that our relationship with China has cooled. Certainly Peking wishes to sustain our relations: a pronounced souring or break would expose the Chinese even further to Moscow; we remain their only real option as a counterweight. Accordingly, the Chinese will maintain our connection at about present levels. But they will not be willing to show much progress in bilateral relations or cooperation on international issues; and they will stress our differences and keep up their ideological criticism of us in the public domain. They are ready, in short, to continue their recent phase of correctness, without warmth or much vitality.

This Chinese attitude has been the general pattern of recent months. In hindsight its origins can probably be traced back to the end of 1973 when several factors coincided: the initial impact of Watergate and the first instances of Congressional hobbling of Executive authority in foreign affairs; the beginning of the fading of the authority of Chou En-lai, the chief architect of the American opening; and our goofs in sending a high-level Ambassador to Taiwan and opening up two new Chinese Nationalist consulates in the U.S. shortly after my November trip to Peking and its positive communiqué, including a reasonable Chinese formulation on Taiwan.

Since then by far the key factor has been the Chinese perception of the erosion of our domestic foundation and loss of clout on the world scene. Furthermore, during my visit last year, I foreshadowed for the first time the unlikelihood of major progress on the Taiwan issue before 1977 unless China explicitly renounced the use of force. Since then détente has run into trouble, reducing our leverage with Peking—our best period in Chinese relations, 1971–3, was also our most active phase with the Soviet Union. We suffered a major setback in Indochina, which however ideologically pleasing to Peking, pointed up our domestic [Page 822] vulnerabilities and was a geopolitical reversal for the Chinese. In Europe the Chinese see the unravelling of the Southern flank of NATO and the lulling of the continent generally by what they call the “European Insecurity Conference.” And the Congressional investigations and pre-election politicking have picked up steam. Finally, there has been intensive pre-succession jockeying in China itself, and their domestic politics has probably made them more musclebound in their decision-making, and perhaps includes criticism of policy toward America.

These cumulative factors over the past two years now add up to China’staking us less seriously as a world power that is capable of resisting a Soviet Union that continues to increase its military strength and expand its political influence. This changed attitude was clearly reflected in the scenario of my visit to China this time:

  • —Their Foreign Minister slammed us hard in the United Nations on the eve of my trip. They also needled us on the issues of Tibet and Puerto Rico.
  • —At the first night’s banquet in Peking, their Foreign Minister publicly criticized our détente policy, knowing full well that this was bound to get major attention.
  • —The conversations with Vice Premier Teng were on the whole desultory, with their showing little interest in our perception of the world scene, except for the Soviet Union and Europe where they said we were following the policies of Munich and Dunkirk.
  • —Chairman Mao reinforced these themes in our conversation, clearly questioning our reliability as a serious power.
  • —For the first time they declined to hear some special briefings, perhaps partly because of their fear of leaks in the U.S., but also presumably to keep their distance.
  • —The contentious nature of both the content of their draft communiqué for your visit and their procedure was their most disdainful performance so far in our relationship. On substance they indicated that they want to highlight our differences and show little advance in our relations. And they waited until just a few hours before my departure before tabling their draft—when they had known for several weeks that we wanted to reach essential agreement on the outcome of your visit during my trip; their response was a complete rejection of our approach; and they did not give us any warning at all of the chasm during three days of talks during meetings, banquets, and sightseeing.

All of this is annoying, even somewhat disturbing. It is not a major crisis, however, and should be kept in perspective. They have no real strategic options at this time to continuing our relationship. They clearly are eager to have you visit China. The forces that brought us together remain basically at work. They still treat Moscow as the principal enemy and will maintain some restraint in their posture toward [Page 823] us. And for all our domestic problems, they know full well that we remain the strongest power in the world and are not to be trifled with.

The General Prospects

Against this background let me explore the outlook for your own trip and how I believe we should now proceed. You have my telegraphed account of our final evening in Peking and the exchanges we had on the unacceptable Chinese draft communiqué.3 On the way to the airport Thursday4 morning, the Foreign Minister indicated they would make an effort to meet our concerns when they get our new draft next week, though he reiterated they must have their three principles on Taiwan and the section on concrete bilateral relations would remain truncated. He said their first preference is no communiqué, and he doesn’t understand why we think we need one. The political symbolism of your visit is the central factor in their view. He also suggested the promising possibility of a joint press statement in place of a communiqué. This could be a less contentious and more positive document describing the talks—instead of a formal document between two countries which would oblige them to state their principled views. I left it that we would be in touch with them early in the week through Ambassador Bush.

I made certain during my visit that you would receive a courteous and appropriate welcome. It is not in the Chinese interest to embarrass you in terms of hospitality or decorum. At the same time, it is now very clear, as we suspected all along, that there will be little drama and minimum results. We will not gain Chinese acceptance of a positive communiqué showing significant movement in our relations. No matter what course we pursue, we can expect domestic and international carping over the worth of a second Presidential visit to China that produces meager concrete results—notwithstanding the fact that we believe that your trip is justified by the symbolism of an ongoing relationship; the chance to exchange authoritative views on the international situation; the Soviet factor; the opportunity to size up the post-Mao, post-Chou leadership of the world’s most populous nation; and whatever modest outcome we can achieve.


We now have the following options:

Push for the most positive communiqué we can get.
Settle for a very brief, bland communiqué or none at all.
Work toward a relatively brief but more upbeat joint press statement.
Cancel your trip.

In considering our course of action we need to keep in mind the Chinese view of us; the Soviet reaction; our general international posture; and the American domestic reaction.

Let me briefly discuss each of the options in turn.

Positive Communiqué. This has been our objective. The weightier the results of the trip, of course, the more solid our bilateral relationship looks to the world, and the Soviet Union in particular, and the more justifiable your travels look to the domestic audience. We have emphasized that signs of a vital connection with Peking are required to maintain public support for our China policy and thus any help to Peking in case of Soviet pressures. On the other hand, it is now amply clear that the Chinese will continue to keep our relationship at the present level—alive enough to suit their geopolitical purposes but without significant progress so long as we are not able to complete normalization. More fundamentally, because of our domestic weaknesses they take us less seriously as a world power, and they see our relations with Moscow as being in trouble, which reduces our leverage. Either they do not understand our need to show continued momentum, or they find it impossible to move for ideological and domestic political reasons. And they insist on underlining our differences as well as areas of common agreement.

These factors mean that we cannot expect to work out a positive communiqué. We went for the maximum document in our draft, and the unacceptable Chinese response demonstrates their clashing view. With maximum effort we may be able to eliminate some of the negative aspects of their version and add a few positive elements. But the starting point is so bleak and the Chinese position so firm that the very best we could come out with is a carbon copy of the Shanghai Communiqué and that after major bargaining right down to the wire. Even this outcome would be criticized as a stalling out of our relations after three years, and the value of your journey would be questioned.

Brief Communiqué or None at All. This approach would recognize the impossibility of a positive outcome and forego the arduous task of battling with the Chinese over drafts to little avail. It would state neither agreements nor disagreements but simply use adjectives to describe the conversations. We would clearly indicate in advance of your visit that the emphasis will be on your private discussions with the new leadership in Peking and major movement was neither necessary nor to be expected at this stage of our relations. This would fit the Chinese mood. And it would look more honest to our various [Page 825] audiences, including the domestic one, than a lengthy replay of three years ago.

On the other hand, it would be very difficult to explain a second President’s going all the way to China, holding several days of discussions, and then having nothing to announce in terms of mutual agreement. Foreign and domestic audiences would probably interpret this as signifying a stagnated relationship and question the purpose of your trip. The Soviets might take heart that we were going nowhere in our Chinese opening.

Joint Press Statement. As I said, Chiao floated this concept as allowing the Chinese to be more flexible in their presentations. The document would be informal and descriptive, rather than a formal taking of positions which would inevitably involve a more extensive cataloging of differences. Its overall character would be blander—but also more positive—than a communiqué. Another advantage would be that, unlike a communiqué, it would not be comparable to the Shanghai document and thus less susceptible to comparisons. It would thus be more extensive than a brief communiqué (or none at all) without many of the headaches of a lengthy communiqué.

The drawbacks would be the inevitable carping over lack of results. By definition there would be no specific agreements, only a narrative of the discussions with a positive sense of direction. It would probably be brief. Various audiences, including Moscow, would take it as a sign that our relationship with Peking was not progressing rapidly but they would not conclude that it was in bad shape.

Cancel the Trip. This is an option that should also be considered. Clearly little concrete can be expected to result from your journey. The sharper public rhetoric of the Chinese recently; their refusal to be visibly identified with us; the Middle Kingdom psychology of getting a second President to come to China even though he knew little would be achieved; and the disdainful way that they treated us and the communiqué process during my visit—all these suggest postponement of your trip should at least be considered. Your various audiences at home and abroad, including the Soviets might well consider your cancellation an act of strength. The Chinese might secretly respect such a move. You would explain that our relations with Peking are proceeding satisfactorily, but based on our exploratory contacts you decided that a summit meeting was not really required or justified at this juncture. You look forward to going when conditions were more ripe, and meanwhile we would sustain our relationship through established channels. It could be argued that this course would invite no more criticism of failure than a trip that seemed purely cosmetic, or even highlighted our divergences.

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On the other hand, a cancellation of your trip—after all the firm expectations for a full year—would be a major event, no matter how low-keyed we tried to treat it. It would be seen probably as a major crisis in our relationship—either on general grounds or because of specific issues like détente or Taiwan. Coupled with the postponement of the Brezhnev summit, many would trumpet a general failure of our foreign policy, particularly in East-West relations. The Russians would certainly be pleased—though they might well be impressed with your sang-froid and would probably not attempt to exploit the event in strategic fashion. Finally it might well kill off the China opening. No matter how annoying some of the Chinese practices, they have made it amply clear that they look forward to your visit, and your cancellation would be a significant rebuff.


I look forward to discussing these issues with you. As of now, I lean strongly toward the following procedure:

  • —Reduce your China trip effectively to three-plus working days in Peking only. You would arrive on Monday afternoon, December 1 and leave Friday morning, December 5. It would be billed as a business like exchange of views in the capital, with limited sightseeing and no visits to other cities.
  • —Work for a joint press statement which would eliminate most contentious language and be moderately upbeat.
  • —Proceed to the Philippines and Indonesia for a day each and return to the U.S. on Monday, December 8.

This course has the following advantages:

  • —It would indicate that our relationship with the PRC is being sustained and marginally advanced because of our mutual interests, though our respective differences prevent a major breakthrough.
  • —The stop in China could be seen as a working session with the new leader of a quarter of humanity without an extended sojourn, side trips or frills.
  • —The reduction of the China trip and the adding of two other countries would be an appropriate riposte to the general Chinese attitude and communiqué ploy. It would place them into a general Asian context rather than have the President travel all the way to Peking for meetings he knew would be marginal.
  • —We would strengthen our relations with the two key countries in Southeast Asia.
  • —Your trip (which would still only last one week), would become an Asian, rather than merely a Communist China, journey and would thus have a weightier and more balanced nature.

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I recommend we proceed as follows. Ambassador Bush would present a draft of a joint press statement along the lines of Tab A.5(For reference the Chinese draft communiqué is at Tab B.)6 He would be instructed to tell the Chinese the following:

After reflecting on the exchanges during my trip and studying their communiqué, we decided that it would be impossible to work out an acceptable communiqué in order to agree to some of their language spelling out our differences we would need a great deal of positive content elsewhere in the document—which they have made clear they are not prepared to accept. Therefore, per my conversation with the Foreign Minister on the way to the airport, we have decided that a joint press statement is the best outcome; being less formal, it would not require explicit and divisive taking of positions. Our draft picks up the positive aspects of their draft communiqué in verbatim fashion and expresses other sections (e.g. Taiwan) in as objective a manner as we can. Frankly we consider their positive elements inadequate, but we can live with them in a press statement that drops their contentious language.
We believe it makes sense to make a working visit, keeping in mind the Chinese view that the trip itself is the significant political factor. Therefore you plan to arrive on Monday afternoon in Peking, leave Friday morning, and visit no other Chinese cities.
You are reconsidering the possibility of visiting a couple of friendly Asian capitals after China; otherwise your travels would have an unbalanced coloration.
We wish to announce the dates for the trip on Monday, November 3, so we need their response very quickly.
Our advance team would proceed to Peking a week or so later.

  1. Source: Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Kissinger Reports on USSR, China, and Middle East Discussions, Box 2, China Memcons and Reports, October 19–23, 1975, Kissinger’s Trip. Secret; Sensitive. There are no notations on the memorandum that indicate that Ford saw it.
  2. Ford received and initialed Kissinger’s reports on his visit to China. (Memoranda from Scowcroft to Ford, October 19, 20, and 21; ibid.)
  3. Ford initialed the communiqué, which he received from Scowcroft. (Ibid.) The Chinese draft was given to U.S. officials on October 22; see Document 126 and footnote 2 thereto.
  4. October 23.
  5. Tab A, attached but not printed, is the U.S. draft of the joint press statement as approved and revised by Kissinger. It was sent to the USLO in an undated backchannel message. (Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Kissinger-Scowcroft West Wing Office Files, 1969–1977, Box 5, China, unnumbered items (22), 10/25/75–10/31/75)
  6. Tab B is attached but not printed.