3. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon1


  • My Trip to China

[Omitted here is discussion of Indochina and Southeast Asia.]

[Page 7]

Evolution of Our Relationship

The progression of our relationship in the past twenty months is remarkable. I believe it is one of your most striking successes in foreign policy. If we continue to handle it carefully, it should continue to pay dividends—in relaxing tensions in Asia, in furthering relations with Moscow, and generally in building a structure of peace.

When you sent me to China in July 19712 we had almost no idea what to expect as we penetrated twenty years of accumulated isolation, distrust and enmity. Since then we have progressed faster and further than anyone would have predicted, or the rest of the world realizes. For in plain terms we have now become tacit allies. The evolution has gone as follows:

When you took office there was total lack of diplomatic communication between our two governments, no personal or commercial interchange between our two peoples, mutual public recrimination, and clashing world views.

In the first two and a half years of your Administration, we put out private feelers through third countries, took unilateral public steps in such fields as trade and passports in order to send signals, and pointed our rhetoric toward a new relationship. This resulted in agreement in principle that you would meet the Chinese leaders and my secret exploratory trip of July 1971.

My July 1971 trip reestablished direct communications, confirmed your trip to Peking and suggested that the PRC was ready to move toward normalization. On the other hand, Chou presented his quota of rhetoric and our policies clashed on most major issues.

In October 19713 we established the framework for your trip, including the outlines of the joint communiqué. The Taiwan issue remained hanging in the communiqué, however, and our policies continued to conflict in many areas.

Your February 1972 visit4 was the watershed. It stamped your and Mao’s personal imprints on the move toward normalization. The Shanghai Communiqué contained joint principles in international affairs, finessed the Taiwan problem through mutual and ambiguous compromise, set in motion bilateral trade and exchanges, established the public Paris channel, and accelerated the private New York [Page 8]channel.5 However, as the communiqué publicly, and your conversations privately demonstrated, we were improving our relations despite different world outlooks.

My June 1972 trip6 marked substantial evolution toward our views in the Chinese private positions on international issues. But the Vietnam war continued to inhibit the Chinese, and publicly all we could register was a modest increase in exchanges and trade.

On this trip in February 1973, the flood gates opened privately and publicly for the reasons stated. The Chinese leaders are among the very few in the world with a global and longer term perspective—and it now parallels ours in many important respects. In such areas as the Soviet Union, Europe, South Asia and even Japan we have similar outlooks. In others, like Indochina and Korea, we each back our allies but share an interest in independent states and relaxed tensions. And on Taiwan we have reached a clear modus vivendi—on our part, continued, concrete evolution toward full relations with all its implications; and on their part, patience and a pragmatism reflected most vividly in the coming side-by-side presence of a GRC Embassy and a PRC Liaison Office. On the bilateral plane, it is full speed ahead on trade and exchanges. As for public relations, the Chinese have long since singled out the USSR for attack and have shown increasing cordiality in their public contacts with us.

Following are the main points of my talks with the Chinese, topic by topic.

Soviet Union

The Soviet Union dominated our conversations. In 1971 there were somewhat guarded references by the Chinese to Soviet designs, but they ritualistically linked the US and the USSR as the two superpowers seeking hegemony. By the time of your visit the Chinese leaders were quite candid about the Soviet menace but stayed away from extended discussion. By last June the Soviet Union had become one of the two major topics in my conversations, the other one being Indochina. On this trip it was the centerpiece and completely permeated our talks. The Chinese views generally surfaced in the regional discussion and are detailed later in this report. Following are the more general observations.

Chou raised the USSR in our first meeting and kept coming back to it. He called a special meeting the night of February 17 to discuss this subject and at the end of his presentation he announced my meeting with Mao, where again it was a major topic. We discussed it at length [Page 9]the next day as well. In literally every region of the world the Chinese see the Soviet hand at play. As you will see in the area discussions below, Mao and Chou urged us to counter the Russians everywhere—to work closely with our allies in Europe and Japan, and to take more positive action to prevent the Soviets filling vacuums or spreading their influence in areas like the Middle East, Persian Gulf, Near East, South Asia and Indian Ocean.

In our first meeting, after my opening statement, Chou asked me in effect whether we thought the world was moving toward peace or war. I said that there were some positive developments, but we were not naive about potential dangers, such as the intensive Soviet military buildup. I made clear that we had major business to do with Moscow, but we were under no illusions about its possible motivations. We would continue our policy of keeping the Chinese fully informed and not concluding any agreements that could be directed against Peking.

Chou pointed to developments in Europe and said perhaps we sought to “push the ill waters of the Soviet Union eastward.” He also cited our diversion of fighters from Taiwan to South Vietnam last fall in Enhance Plus as an example of our taking advantage of Peking; somewhat out of context, he said that this showed that we might be standing on Chinese shoulders to reach out toward the Soviet Union.

The next day I purposely detailed our proposed force reductions on Taiwan and then made a more sweeping analysis of our policy toward the Soviet Union. I said that the nature of our relationship meant that we had to pursue a more complicated policy than the PRC which could oppose the Soviet Union outright on issues. We were making several agreements with Moscow, but we would not let these constrain us in the event that our interests were jeopardized. I pointed out that the USSR could follow one of two courses. If they truly wanted peace, we would welcome that course, and the agreements we were making might contribute to that end. If, however, as seemed more likely, they were bent on a more threatening road, we had shown in the past that we would react strongly if our interests were jeopardized. In any event, I emphasized, we would maintain strong defenses and improve our strategic forces so long as the Soviet buildup continued. And on issues of direct concern to Peking we would take Chinese interests into account, such as on the Soviet initiative on a nuclear understanding, where we have been fighting a delaying action ever since last spring.

Chou and then Mao, however, both replayed the theme that we might be helping the Soviet Union, whether or not purposely. Whereas we saw two possibilities, i.e. that the Soviet Union would either pursue a peaceful or a menacing course, the Chinese saw only the latter. They were spreading their influence everywhere with the help of their satel[Page 10]lites, like India, and were out to isolate the Chinese. The “new czars” were neurotic and omnipresent. It was the Chinese duty to try and expose their designs wherever possible, however lonely their efforts in a world enamored with false détente.

Mao even went so far as to suggest that we might like to see the Russians bogged down in an attack on China; after wearing themselves out for a couple of years, we would then “poke a finger” in Moscow’s back. I rejoined that we believe that a war between the two Communist giants was likely to be uncontrollable and have unfortunate consequences for everyone. We therefore wished to prevent such a conflict, not take advantage of it.

Given Mao’s and Chou’s skeptical comments on this issue, I treated it at considerable length the day after my meeting with the Chairman. I said there were three hypothetical US motives in a policy that contributed to pressures on the PRC from the USSR. First, we might want the Soviet Union to defeat China. I stressed emphatically that whether Moscow defeated China or Europe first, the consequences for us would be the same; we would be isolated and the ultimate target. Thus this could never be our policy.

The second possible motive was the one Mao mentioned—our wish for a stalemated Moscow attack on Peking, so as to exhaust the Soviet Union. I pointed out that even partial Soviet dominance of China could have many of the consequences of the first option. In any event, such a major conflict would have unpredictable consequences. The Soviet Union might take rash actions if they were stymied as the Chairman claimed we had been in Vietnam. And we would be forced either to demonstrate our impotence and irrelevance, or make a series of extremely complex decisions.

The third possibility was that we might contribute to a war between China and the Soviet Union through misjudgment rather than policy. This I recognized as a danger despite our intentions. I then analyzed at length our policy around the world, with emphasis on Europe, to demonstrate that we plan to maintain our defense, continue a responsible international role, and work closely with our allies. In short, while seeking relaxation with Moscow, we would also ensure that if it did not choose a peaceful course we and our friends would be in a position to resist and defend our national interests. And I made it evident that we would consider aggression against China as involving our own national security.

It is not at all clear that we have fully allayed Chinese suspicions. While they have nowhere else to go in the short term, they will certainly watch our Soviet moves with wariness, and take out insurance with Japan and Europe.

[Page 11]

[Omitted here is discussion of Europe, South Asia, Near and Middle East, Indochina and Southeast Asia, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and bilateral relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China.]


The current trend therefore is positive, but there are no grounds for complacency. There are at least two areas which have substantial potential for trouble in our relationship:

Our dealings with the Soviet Union. To date the Soviet factor has been the main leverage in our dealings with the PRC. At the same time—and contrary to the predictions of almost all Soviet experts—our opening to Peking has paid us substantial dividends with Moscow as well. With conscientious attention to both capitals we should be able to continue to have our mao tai and drink our vodka too. Peking, after all, assuming continued hostility with the USSR, has no real alternative to us as a counterweight (despite its recent reaching out to Japan and Western Europe as insurance). And Moscow needs us in such areas as Europe and economics.

But this is nevertheless a difficult balancing act that will increasingly face us with hard choices. Mao and Chou both suggested that, inadvertently or not, our Soviet policies could increase the pressures on China. It was even intimated that we might favor a Sino-Soviet conflict, so as to bog down the Soviet Union and weaken it for our own attack. A cutting edge is the Soviet initiative on a nuclear understanding. One of Moscow’s motives is certainly to embarrass us in our relations with Peking, since they know their initiative is anathema to Peking. We have fought a delaying action on this issue for almost a year now, but Brezhnev is apt to push it to a head in conjunction with his visit here.7 To satisfy him and not dissatisfy Chou at the same time will be a challenge. Other concrete awkward areas in our triangular relationship include European security policies and the granting of credits to Moscow.

The coming change in Chinese leadership. Mao is in his 80s and has received an “invitation” from “God.” Chou is 75 and has just publicly noted the need for new leadership soon in his country. They obviously control PRC policy now, but it is not at all clear that they can assure continuity in their policy lines. The Lin Piao affair was obviously a major challenge and may have been a close thing. They have not managed to fill many key party and military posts since then. Mao constantly referred to the difficulties posed by women in China, undoubtedly a reference to his wife who represents the challenge from the left. All of this [Page 12]is reflected in Chinese eagerness to institutionalize our relationship, even if it means bending the sacred “one China” policy to do it.

We know little about power relationships in the PRC and even less about the succession problem. We can only assume—both from the above indices and because of the objective choices facing China—that substantial opposition to present policies exist and that this includes foreign policy. There are undoubtedly those who favor accommodation with Moscow over Washington, for example. Thus, before the present dynasty passes from the scene, we must strengthen bilateral ties, get our two peoples used to a closer relationship, and reach out to more layers of Chinese leadership so as to strengthen the advocates of an opening to America.8

There are two other potential problems, but these would seem to be more manageable and under our control:

The need for a strong American world role. We are useless to Peking as a counterweight to Moscow if we withdraw from the world, lower our defenses, or play a passive international game. Mao and Chou urged a more aggressive American presence—countering Soviet designs in various areas, keeping close ties with our allies, maintaining our defense posture. If the Chinese became convinced that we were heeding the inward impulses of voluble sectors of Congress, the public and the press, we would undoubtedly witness a sharp turn in Peking’s attitude. You and I have, of course, assured the PRC leaders privately, as well as proclaiming publicly, our intentions to maintain a responsible international role. So long as you are President, Peking should certainly be convinced that we will be a crucial factor in the world balance.

The issue of Taiwan. The Chinese have been farsighted and patient on this question. Their willingness to ease our predicament is now most dramatically shown in their setting up a liaison office in Washington while we maintain diplomatic relations with the GRC. On the other hand, we have largely bought their public reasonableness with your own private assurances—to normalize fully our relations by 1976 and to withdraw our forces from Taiwan now that the Vietnam War is over. Taiwan is a problem we should be able to control, both interna[Page 13]tionally and domestically, as we continue to add to the handwriting on the wall and condition our audiences. However, we should be under no illusions that our final step will be anything but painful—there are few friends as decent as our allies on Taiwan.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Kissinger Office Files, Box 98, Country Files—Far East, HAK China Trip—February 1973, Memcons & Reports (Originals) [TS 1 of 2]. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. The date is handwritten. There is no indication that Nixon saw the memorandum. Printed in full in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XVIII, China, 1973–1976, Document 18. Kissinger visited Beijing February 15–19 and met with Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai. For the records of these meetings, see ibid., Documents 914. Briefing memoranda for Kissinger’s trip are in the National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 526, Country Files—Far East, People’s Republic of China, Vol. 6, Jan–Apr 1973 [1 of 3].
  2. Kissinger traveled to China prior to Nixon’s February 1972 visit. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XVII, China, 1969–1972, Documents 139144.
  3. See ibid., Documents 162165.
  4. See ibid., Documents 194204.
  5. The Shanghai Communiqué was issued February 27, 1972, at the end of Nixon’s visit. For the text, see ibid., Document 203.
  6. See ibid., Documents 231234.
  7. See Document 14.
  8. The Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research prepared a study on the possibility of a post-Mao succession crisis. On March 16, Kissinger transmitted the study, accompanied by a January 8 covering memorandum from Rogers, to Nixon. Kissinger noted: “While officials stress that there is ‘collective leadership,’ it is anticipated that the death of Mao Tse-tung and/or Chou En-lai could lead to considerable instability as political institutions are still fragile four years after the conclusion of the Cultural Revolution.” Nixon underlined “death of Mao Tse-Tung and/or Chou En-lai” adding: “K—what is your analysis as to what we can expect in this event?—What should our contingency be?” ( Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XVIII, China, 1973–1976, Document 23)