104. Memorandum From the Vice President’s Chief of Staff (Moe) to Vice President Mondale, the President’s Assistant (Jordan), the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski), and the President’s Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs (Aaron)1


  • The Timing of Normalization of Relations With the PRC From a Domestic Perspective

Given the desirability of normalizing relations with the People’s Republic of China and the Administration’s commitment to doing so, the chief question is one of timing. This memo attempts to deal with that question solely from a domestic political perspective.

The memo rests on several assumptions:

1) SALT is the single most important foreign policy initiative, both substantively and politically, of the Carter Administration, and nothing should be permitted to jeopardize its approval by Congress, which will be difficult under the best of conditions.

2) The PRC has been very patient with us to date on the question of normalization, and while that could conceivably change, it is unlikely to do so.

3) The act of normalization will elicit intense political opposition in this country, particularly from the right-wing. It will be more intense than anything we experienced in the Panama debate, which the right regarded largely as a warm-up exercise for bigger issues to follow, and probably more intense than that which we will encounter in SALT.

4) Because the act of normalization is essentially an executive action as opposed to a legislative one, opponents can have considerably less impact on its implementation than would otherwise be the case. The follow-up legislation that would be required to define our legal relationship with Taiwan should present no insuperable problems if it is sent up after the fact.

5) Once we send a clear signal to the PRC that we are prepared to go down the road of normalization, there is no turning back.

6) There are essentially three options as to timing:

a) Normalization would roughly coincide with the debate over SALT, i.e., late 1978 and early 1979.

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b) Normalization would be deferred until SALT was approved but before the end of the first term, i.e., late 1979 or early 1980.

c) Normalization would be deferred until the beginning of the second term.

There is a respected school of thought which holds that normalization of relations with the PRC, if skillfully timed, can be used to our advantage in securing Congressional approval of SALT. The argument, as I understand it, is that normalization enhances our strategic position vis-a-vis the Soviets at a time when our critics will be charging that SALT II has weakened us strategically.

There may be something to this argument, but unless I’m missing something I’m afraid I’m unpersuaded by it. First, it is too subtle a point to have much real public impact on the SALT debate. Second, it is a point that is difficult if not impossible to articulate publicly in support of SALT, because to do so almost implies that we are indeed strategically disadvantaged by the agreement. Third, it is unlikely to be a persuasive point with either the Hill or the public because few will be willing to acknowledge that any part of our strategic posture should depend on the PRC. Fourth, even acknowledging the validity of the point at the time of normalization, no one will want to rely on its validity very far into the future because of the unpredictability of PRC policy.

I am told that several potential SALT opponents on the Hill favor this approach, and that’s not surprising given their intense distrust of the Soviets. I am not very sanguine, however, about the prospect of picking up any of their votes for SALT on this ground. If it could be shown that normalization actually helps us on the Hill with SALT, that would give this point quite another color but of course we won’t know that for some time.

Nor am I persuaded that the fact of normalization will help us in our SALT negotiations with the Soviets. It’s unrealistic to believe they will sign an agreement which they do not see as being in their interests, and they have undoubtedly already decided—as presumably we have—what their bottom line will be. Moreover, they must have long since discounted our normalization of relations with the PRC in their strategic thinking.

Instead of helping us on SALT, I fear normalization could actually hurt our efforts to gain approval. There is no issue the right-wing feels as deeply about; it is bound to blow every fuse they have. And they have some points to make that will have a great deal of public appeal: We have discarded one of our best friends and allies; for the first time in history we have unilaterally abrogated a mutual defense treaty; our word abroad is no longer any good; our human rights policy is a sham if we establish relations with the PRC, which is totally unsympathetic [Page 376] with our values, at the expense of Taiwan, which at least has the appearance and rudiments of democracy.

Even though a majority of the American people favor normalization (by a 62 to 17 margin, according to an October, 1977 Harris Poll), we will be dealing with a situation where the “intensity factor” will be considerable and entirely on the other side. (The same poll shows that, 62 to 11, the American people feel the U.S. should continue to acknowledge the Nationalist Chinese government in Taiwan.) In short, there is no domestic constituency actively pushing for or even interested in normalization, but there is such a constituency vigorously opposing it. Thus, there is no political plus in normalization; there is only minus. This being the case, and without an opportunity for the opponents to focus their efforts on the Hill on the normalization issue itself, I worry about their trying to make their views felt through some other vehicle, namely SALT. I can see where the two issues would become inextricably entangled, where the opponents of each (even though the two groups largely overlap) would reinforce the other, and where our SALT prospects would suffer as a result.

Although I can’t predict exactly how this alliance might take shape, it would be a mistake to underestimate both the determination and ability of the right-wing to make itself felt on the normalization issue. Whatever the situation, they will find a way; we simply shouldn’t allow them an opportunity in the process to damage SALT, which will be difficult enough and which is ten times more important to the success of the Carter Presidency.

For many of the same reasons normalization should not be allowed to damage the President’s prospects of re-election, which I fear it might do even if it occurred after SALT but before November, 1980. In addition to the reasons cited above, I see this happening in two ways. First, if the normalization process begins in 1979 and continues into 1980, it will ensure the domination of foreign policy issues over their domestic counterparts during the entire first term. This would be at a time, as now, when the American people are much more concerned with solving domestic problems than foreign ones, which, with the possible exception of SALT, they do not see as particularly compelling. They certainly do not see them as vital to their own concerns, coming as they do at a time when there is relative peace and stability throughout the world. If Panama, the Middle East and SALT were to be followed by normalization, people would wonder with some justification why the Administration is so preoccupied with foreign affairs when so many domestic problems, which are inherently less dramatic and therefore receive less public attention, are crying out for solution. Ideally, from a purely domestic political perspective, once SALT is behind us the President should be unencumbered by highly visible and contro[Page 377]versial foreign policy issues and free to emphasize purely domestic concerns which will help him gain re-election.

Second, normalization will play politically into the Republicans’ hands in terms of the theme they are already using against us, namely, that the Administration’s foreign policy is confused, bumbling, weak on defense and particularly soft where the Communists are concerned. Instead of enhancing our strategic position against the Soviets, the Republicans will doubtless try to portray normalization as another sign of weakness on our part toward our potential adversaries, part of a piece with our efforts to normalize relations with Cuba and Vietnam, the B–1 decision, Panama, troop withdrawals from Korea, Naval cutbacks, the neutron bomb decision, timidity in Africa, etc.

While none of these alone makes us vulnerable to a charge of weakness, the Republicans unquestionably sense they can make a lot of political hay out of what they see to be a pattern, and normalization will only increase their confidence and ability to do so.

In short, the Administration has already suffered serious political damage because of its foreign policy initiatives. In some cases—such as the Middle East, attempting to lift the Turkish arms embargo, returning the Crown of St. Stephen—we have been damaged with specific and important domestic constituencies which supported us in 1976. In other cases—most notably Panama—we have used up a lot of political capital with the public and a lot of political chits on the Hill to see through important but unpopular foreign policy initiatives. And SALT—the most important of them all—is yet to come.

Most of this political damage has been incurred knowingly because the objectives involved were important. The question arises, however, as to whether normalization is vital enough to our national interest in the short term to warrant burdening the President with even greater political handicaps as he enters the 1980 campaign.

Given what I know of the subject, I do not believe it does warrant it, particularly if PRC patience with us continues. That is why I conclude that, if at all possible, normalization should be deferred until the beginning of the second term. If the PRC is willing to wait that long, I don’t see any compelling reason why we can’t. If in the unlikely event we see signs that their patience is running thin, there are intermediate steps that we can take to reaffirm our intentions and to try to buy more time, e.g., significantly withdrawing our military presence on Taiwan, reducing the level of our representation in Taipei to that of charge, etc. If it develops that this strategy does not work and if it is decided that our vital interests require normalization during the first term, so be it. But all present signs indicate that is a remote possibility; if the Chinese have demonstrated one characteristic above all others, it is patience.

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In the absence of any compelling reasons to move during the first term—reasons which are now neither apparent nor foreseeable—it should be our goal to defer normalization until a time when it can do the least damage to the President’s programs and political standing.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 8, China (People’s Republic of): 6–8/78. Secret.