106. Paper Prepared by the National Security Council Staff1


I. The Setting

The tone and substance of high-level discussions with the Chinese since 1971 have been greatly affected by events immediately preceding the meetings. To cite a few instances, the U.S. response to the Indo-Pak War of 1971 helped create a favorable climate for Nixon’s 1972 trip. Conclusion of the Paris Peace Accords on the eve of Kissinger’s spring 1973 trip helped make that visit one of the most successful in the series. The Yom Kippur War which occurred prior to the fall 1973 trip reminded the Chinese of the West’s strategic dependency on oil, but the American alert during those hostilities symbolized continued U.S. resolve and made credible the value of the U.S. counterweight to the Soviets.

Since 1973, developments before a trip have tended to highlight U.S. weakness and our search for accords with the Soviet Union. Kissinger’s 1974 trip came on the heels of Vladivostok and a SALT I agreement. The fall and winter 1975 dialogues came against the background of Angola, while the Vance mission occurred as the situation in the [Page 381] Horn was beginning to heat up, the prospects for peace in the Mid East were uncertain, and our policies toward the Soviet Union had not yet been made clear.

In addition to global affairs, domestic conditions in both countries and the climate of the bilateral relationship—the rhetoric each had been using about the other, the state of the trade relationship, the tone of cultural and scientific exchanges—shaped the atmosphere and substance of the visit.

The pertinent factors which impinge on your trip include:

The Horn: Developments have not yet borne out our earlier prediction to the Chinese that by trying to ride two horses at once, the Soviets would be thrown off of both.

SALT: We seem to be moving toward an accord with Moscow which the Chinese believe only will advance Soviet political interests while reducing U.S. vigilance.

Afghanistan: A potentially Soviet-leaning leadership has come to power in a strategic locale without evoking any U.S. reaction.

Zaire: A second Soviet-supplied incursion has begun on the eve of your trip.

Mid East: While approval of the arms sales package is a plus,2 the optimism we expressed to the Chinese about the progress we would achieve through the convening of a Geneva conference has proven unfounded.

Turkey: Congress has not approved arms sales to Ankara, thereby weakening NATO’s eastern flank.

These developments will encourage the Chinese to scorn U.S. weakness. However, for the first time in several years, several developments have underscored Chinese vulnerabilities, their desire for expanded contacts with the West, and our own strength.

The Vietnamese-Cambodian Border War has continued in spite of Chinese efforts to mediate the conflict. China has been unable to restrain the Cambodian regime, which it backs, and its relations with Vietnam have become quite tense and public.

Sino-Soviet relations have deteriorated. Though border talks have been renewed, Brezhnev’s Siberian trip was provocative and the Chinese openly charged the Soviets with an armed border incursion.3 Not since the late 1960s and early 1970s has the Sino-Soviet border and [Page 382] military confrontation been as great, though to be sure other aspects of the Sino-Soviet relationship (such as trade) have improved somewhat.

Negotiations for the Sino-Japanese Peace and Friendship Treaty are stalled, concrete negotiations to fulfill the terms of the long-term trade agreement are proving arduous, and the recent Senkaku incident4 has marred the atmosphere of Sino-Japanese relations.

—While tensions continue to exist in the Chinese leadership, the intense, debilitating struggles that existed through 1976 appear to have ended. At least for the time being, Teng Hsiao-p’ing appears to have the strength to chart a course for the nation’s economic development which acknowledges China’s need for expanded contact with the West.

—China’s own economic development drive has made Peking eager to explore major commercial ventures and to expand its S&T contacts with the outside world.

—China has been increasingly open about its desire to purchase military equipment from European countries.

Giscard’s victory in France and Britain’s improved economic situation, coupled with the strength of the Deutschmark are welcome signs of improved Western European health.

—We are taking measures to improve our defense posture.

Asia: The Chinese will have observed a stiffening of our Asian policy in the showdown of Korean withdrawals, your Asia Society speech, and Mondale’s trip.5

The bilateral relationship features low expectations and contains few immediately contentious issues:

—Carter’s standing in the polls, the continuing problems the Administration has with the energy bill, the likely placing of SALT on the Congressional agenda, and the looming Congressional elections have led some Chinese leaders—Huang Chen, for example—to conclude we will not attach much importance to our relations with China in the months ahead.

—Not since 1973 has the bilateral relationship been as satisfactory. Official statements on both sides have sought to accommodate the needs of the other. Trade has gone up. Tourism has increased. The [Page 383] Daedalus issue stands out as the exception to an otherwise relaxed relationship.6

Summary: Possibilities exist for a productive trip. Though there are elements of strength in our position, we have not made progress in establishing our credibility since the Vance visit. Their own policies, though featuring increased contacts with Western Europe and the ASEAN states in particular, have also manifested vulnerabilities. The basis exists for enhancing the quality of our discussions about world affairs. On bilateral issues, our respective domestic political and economic conditions generate realistic expectations concerning the chances for progress on normalization, while offering opportunities to explore an enhanced cultural and economic relationship should we desire to do so.

II. Chinese Expectations and Objectives

Chinese domestic as well as foreign policy concerns shape their objectives:

Normalization: The Taiwan problem and the Sino-American relationship remain potentially contentious domestic issues. At a minimum, the Chinese will expect you to reaffirm our commitment to normalization in a convincing fashion. They will seek indications that the U.S. continues to acknowledge the existence of but one China of which Taiwan is a part. This minimum expectation arises from Chinese nationalistic sentiment and internal political concerns. Chinese leaders must be able to demonstrate to their potential critics that the Sino-American relationship has not reduced the chances for Taiwan’s reunification with the Mainland. For the time being the U.S. and China have tacitly agreed to set the Taiwan issue aside. But the Chinese would react negatively to any indication during your trip that we are using this interim period to strengthen our position on Taiwan or to lay the groundwork for an independent Taiwan. Because of this, any sign that we are backing off our previous position or our conditional acceptance of their three “conditions” would produce a negative reaction.

While their minimum expectations about our normalization statement are clear, their maximum objective is unclear. Given our press briefings for your trip, they probably do not expect you to advance major proposals on normalization. We do not know if they are pre[Page 384]pared for a substantive, meaningful discussion of normalization. Signals to date have been mixed. The normalization issue is treated in depth in a State paper.7

The Symbol of the Visit: The Chinese have considerable interest in your trip and in projecting to the outside world an image of cordiality and seriousness to the visit. It serves their interests vis-a-vis Moscow. It enhances their legitimacy and authority: the world’s leading power again sends an emissary to Peking. We can expect Peking’s managing of the visit to project an official image of Peking’s graciousness and magnanimity and of foreigners fitting into the Chinese world view, while the presence of a UPI delegation in China will enable Peking rapidly to disseminate its “candid” assessment of the visit.

Lecture the U.S. The Chinese will seek to educate you about the dangers of the Soviet Union. Recognizing their military and economic weakness, the Chinese seek to influence world affairs through words—as moral and strategic exemplar—an effort which is frequently counterproductive. Often, the listener becomes annoyed with the simplicity of the lesson and the arrogance with which it is presented. This facet of trips to Peking is not unique to Sino-American relations but has been part of Chinese conduct since antiquity; the ruler in Peking graciously exposing the barbarian to enlightenment. In his memoirs, Khrushchev revealed that this aspect of the Chinese particularly infuriated him; by indulging his frustrations, he ended up harming himself as much as the Chinese.

Judgment of You and the Administration. Chinese diplomacy draws heavily upon personal judgments they make about the individuals with whom they deal. To them, politics involve the management of interpersonal relations. Form and substance, ritual and reality are totally intertwined. They assiduously cultivate a friendly personal relationship with people they like, and they treat derisively those for whom they lack respect. Your anti-Soviet reputation means you begin with a favorable image. But your visit will give them an opportunity to draw firmer conclusions about an individual whose policy preferences they realize have considerable consequence for them. They will also seek to learn about President Carter’s temperament from you. The qualities that earn their respect are patience, integrity, dignity, toughness, vision, discipline, and constancy.

Information. The Chinese will seek information both about the U.S. assessment of Soviet intentions, capabilities, and strategies in [Page 385] world affairs, and about American intentions, capabilities, and strategies. Though it is hard to discern the cumulative impact of our high-level visits to Peking, these frank exchanges have played a part in China’s gradual adoption of a more realistic foreign policy over the past five years, particularly in Asia but perhaps also toward such international problems as the world economic system and nuclear proliferation. China’s leaders remain somewhat isolated from world affairs and within their own system are not subject to tough challenges on basic assumptions of their policy. Their discussions with foreign visitors are an important source of information for them. They hope to gain both knowledge and (while never admitting it) some insight into global trends through these candid exchanges.

Affect U.S. Behavior. The Chinese have low expectations that the discussions will alter U.S. behavior in the short run. The two exceptions could be in the areas of (1) relaxing our controls on technology transfer to the PRC and (2) securing our acquiescence to their purchase of military equipment from Third Countries. To be sure, the Chinese will also seek to affect our behavior in the Horn, southern Africa, and Afghanistan, but they probably do not harbor high hopes on these subjects.

III. U.S. Expectations and Objectives

Given Chinese expectations and objectives, we should seek these objectives:

Consult on issues of common concern, seek to influence Chinese perceptions and conduct, and elicit reinforcing actions in areas where we share interests by:

• Increasing Chinese confidence that we intend to provide military assistance to Somalia if Siad abandons his territorial claims, and encourage the Chinese to increase their economic assistance to Somalia;

• Encouraging the Chinese to exert their influence for a peaceful solution of the Zimbabwe and Namibia problems out of recognition that violence in this region will open up opportunities for Soviet-Cuban penetration;

• Reinforcing Chinese inclinations to play a stabilizing role in Korea;

• Encouraging China to initiate contacts with the people—if not the government—of Israel;

• Encouraging China to challenge Cuba’s participation in the non-aligned movement.

Persuade the Chinese that we know what we are doing in our approach to the Soviet Union, particularly SALT. We wish the Chinese to be confident that our relationship with the Soviet Union is not aimed against them—that they do not face “super power collusion”. We wish to give them our assessment of the global military balance, including the balance in East Asia. At the same time, we should seek information from the Chinese concerning their relations with the Soviet Union, including [Page 386] progress in border negotiations. We should also be prepared to convey the U.S. Government attitude toward Chinese desires to purchase arms from third countries.

Utilize the atmosphere surrounding the visit to convey an impression of continued progress toward normalization and of a deepening U.S. consultative relationship with the PRC. Your visit symbolizes our commitment to improve our relations with both Peking and Moscow, so that we can continue to enjoy the advantage of having better relations with either than they do with each other.

Assess the intellectual and emotional quality of the Chinese leaders. Since the President has had no personal contact with the Chinese leadership, an important part of your report to him will be your assessment of the Chinese leadership and its implications for our China policy. Given their military capabilities and political setting, do the ends and means of their foreign policy make sense, i.e. are they rational? How stable do they appear to be about world events? How well do they understand the U.S.? Are their statements of indignation about the Soviet Union genuine or theatrical? Do you detect nuanced differences among the leaders on foreign policy matters—such as on the importance of normalization, the inevitability of war, or the focal point on Soviet ambitions?

Advance the normalization process and seek ways of widening our relations with China in the commercial, cultural, and strategic realms. Your precise objectives in this realm will reflect Presidential instruction.


A comparison of U.S. and Chinese objectives leads to the conclusion that both sides are approaching the meetings with roughly the same objectives in mind. Both sides wish the external symbols to suggest a successful trip, and both sides will seek to obtain information and make judgments about the other. This suggests the trip should meet our minimum expectations.

IV. Our Presentation: An Aim For Balance

Your aim should be to achieve balance.

—Between confidence in our ability to achieve our global objectives and an awareness of the problems we currently face.

—Between a stated recognition of the role that China’s anti-Soviet posture plays in maintaining the global equilibrium and our unstated awareness that they need us as much as we need them.

—Between taking into account China’s distinctive approach to foreign affairs and not pandering to the Chinese world views.

—Between asserting confidence in American strength and appearing to “protest too much”.

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The balance you seek in your presentation can be attained by emphasizing:

—The U.S. is militarily strong and making efforts to maintain and improve its position.

—The Soviet military buildup is a major challenge, but the U.S. and the West have not stood still. An essential equivalence does exist.

—On the basis of this fundamental strength, we can resist pressures and assert our interests. We will do this in conjunction with others in the affected areas, but we will not run wildly around intervening in hopeless, bad, or regionally unpopular causes.

—Where our interests require it, however, we will defend them. (How you make this assertion credible is the major challenge to your presentation.)

—We believe we share many common points with China, particularly in preventing third countries from establishing positions of dominance in places where we both have legitimate concerns. We think it in our mutual interests to speak frankly about concrete actions, though growing out of separate and distinct world views and social systems, which could be mutually supportive.

While our own presentation is easy to sketch, it is more difficult to identify an appropriate strategy of response to the inevitable Chinese charges of U.S. weakness and tendencies of appeasement. When listening to the Chinese charges, it bears keeping these points in mind:

—Much Chinese rhetoric should be seen as theatre, with a good deal of posturing. To a certain extent, Chinese see life as a morality play, with the objective of making adversaries appear somehow inadequate. If one seeks to respond in the same spirit, the exchange will not end, for the Chinese will be determined to get in the last word. It is far better firmly but swiftly to indicate disagreement with the Chinese assessment and then move the discussion onto other grounds.

—To the extent the Chinese mean what they say, their objective is to encourage the U.S. to shoulder more of the burden and thereby hopefully reduce the Chinese burden against the Soviets—“sitting on the mountainside and watching the tigers fight.” The Soviets devote roughly 25 percent of their military effort against their Eastern front, and 75 percent against the West. The Chinese fear that any reduction in Western vigilance will enable the Soviets to divert a greater percentage of their effort to the East. The Chinese express concern that some Western strategists would like to increase the sense of Soviet security in the West so they will channel a greater effort to their East. If the Chinese conclude that we will be lowering our level of resistance, they may decide that their safest course is to reduce their own level of resistance to Moscow. In the light of the Chinese calculus, our rebuttal to Chinese [Page 388] charges of weakness tacitly must indicate that while we are not going to pull their chestnuts out of the fire for them, they can remain confident we will continue to tie down the bulk of Soviet military concerns.

You have four alternative approaches to counter Chinese criticisms:

Scape Goat. You could claim that current signs of U.S. weakness are but a tactical device made necessary by the American domestic political scene. Liberal Democrats will not support a determined posture toward the Soviet Union. It is necessary to yield to the Soviets in order to expose Moscow’s true ambitions and thereby educate the American people about the Soviet’s true nature. Kissinger used this line of argument to defend détente in 1972–1973; its inadequacy soon became evident.

Rational Response. You could respond on rational grounds, pointing out some of the benefits the Chinese derive from our Soviet policy as well. You could meet Chinese charges of our weakness by providing additional evidence of our own strength. However, the Chinese will not recognize the adequacy of your response.

Tough and Barbed Response. You could retort angrily, reminding the Chinese of the 30 year history of U.S.-Soviet relations and recalling China’s inadequacies in their own dealing with the Soviet Union. This line of attack—which Kissinger also used—results in a slugging contest and makes it difficult to maintain the outward symbolic signs of a successful visit which both sides seek to attain.

Measured Response. A fourth approach—which I believe Vance began to employ successfully—is simply to listen to the charges of U.S. weakness, to indicate that your initial presentation outlining U.S. strength and thirty years of U.S.-Soviet relations speak for themselves, to point out that charges of American inadequacy assists the Soviet Union more than it arouses vigilance in the U.S. because it arouses unnecessary doubt about American credibility, and to conclude that our differing assessments are unlikely to be reconciled in one meeting. You could then stress that in spite of our differing assessments, we share common points; from your perspective, the discussions will be more productive if we explore in frank fashion how we might act upon these common points in a practical way.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Trip File, Box 38, Brzezinski, Asia, 5/18–25/78, China, Volume I [II]. Secret. Oksenberg sent an earlier version of this paper to Brzezinski under a May 16 covering memorandum that noted, “I am circulating it to members of the delegation for their comments before casting it in final draft for your book. You may wish to show it to Secretary Vance and Secretary Brown for their comments.” (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Far East, Oksenberg Subject File, Box 29, Brzezinski 5/78 Trip to China: 5/13–19/78)
  2. On May 15, the Senate approved Carter’s decision to sell $4.8 billion worth of military airplanes to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt. The arms sales to Egypt and Saudi Arabia aroused controversy among some political figures in Washington. See Congress and the Nation, vol. V, 1977–1980, pp. 63–64.
  3. See Document 102.
  4. In April, numerous Chinese fishing vessels appeared in the vicinity of the disputed Senkaku Islands. (Telegram 6687 from Tokyo, April 17; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780164–0316)
  5. Brzezinski addressed the Japan Society, rather than the Asia Society, on April 27 in New York. He denied that the United States was withdrawing from Asia and noted the importance of making progress in normalizing relations with China. For the text of his address, see the Department of State Bulletin, June 1978, pp. 1–4. Mondale visited the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Australia, and New Zealand April 29–May 10.
  6. The Daedalus Company requested U.S. Government approval to sell to the People’s Republic of China an infrared scanning system used in resource exploration. (Memorandum from Oksenberg and Huberman to Brzezinski, May 8; Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Far East, Oksenberg Subject File, Box 56, Daedalus: 1–9/78) The Department of Commerce had refused to grant an export license. (Telegram 102441, April 21, and telegram 108312, April 27, to Beijing; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780172–0071 and D780181–0641)
  7. Not further identified. This may be a reference to a May 11 Department of State paper by Harvey J. Feldman (EA/ROC) on “Taiwan and US Normalization Policy.” (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Far East, Oksenberg Subject File, Box 28, Brzezinski 5/78 Trip to China: 5/10–12/78)