130. Memorandum From Michel Oksenberg of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1


  • Chinese Foreign Policy: Leaning to One Side Again—This Time Our Side

Hua Kuo-feng’s trip, the signing of the Sino-Japanese Treaty, and Ambassador Ch’ai’s arrival in Washington underscore the activism of current Chinese foreign policy. Instead of cheering from the sidelines, China is now actively engaged in attempting to build a durable, world-wide anti-Soviet consensus.

Adding to the significance of these developments is the Chinese announcement through Sonada that China will renounce the Sino-Soviet Treaty next year. Until recently, the Soviets had hoped for an improvement in Sino-Soviet relations after Mao’s death, believing that a diminution in Sino-Soviet tensions was necessary for the modernization of China. With Chinese willingness to renounce the Treaty, all hope of resurrecting Sino-Soviet amity has ended. The Chinese have both nailed the coffin shut and embarked on a strategy to modernize China by turning to the West. And with that, the Sino-Soviet conflict has entered a new stage.

In 1949, Mao Tse-tung proclaimed his policy of “leaning to one side”—the Soviet Union. The Sino-Soviet alliance and the bi-polar world it helped create was the operative factor in world affairs for ten years, followed by another decade of roughly equidistant, antagonistic relations among the Soviet Union, the U.S., and China. Now the Chinese are willing to solidify through permanent agreements the more fluid situation of recent years: the lengthening of their distance from the Soviet Union and the shortening of their distance from us. They have moved into a new era of leaning to one side, this time toward the U.S. By attaching themselves to the West, moreover, the Chinese hope to accentuate strains in the détente process and thereby lengthen the distance between the Soviet Union and the U.S.

The Chinese are emphasizing that their course is set, and its implications are already becoming manifest. The modernization process will itself deeply affect cultural values and social structure across China, [Page 519] deepening and broadening interaction with the West. More immediate fallout is also evident.

—China has broken with Albania and Vietnam, cutting its losses with former allies who questioned current policies.

—It is seeking arms in the West, partly as a means of causing irritations in the détente process, but also as a means of making its defense capabilities more credible.

—It is engaged in a wide-ranging modernization of its armed forces, breaking with the Maoist emphasis on guerrilla warfare.

—[1 paragraph (2 lines) not declassified]

—It has not only become more active in the Caribbean and southern Africa, but has introduced a greater degree of parallelism with U.S. policy into its international behavior since your trip.

—It has begun, under Teng’s personal direction, a purge of the army, where nostalgia for the days of Sino-Soviet cooperation has long been suspected to exist.

—More generally, it is prepared to endure and hopefully overcome the political and social strains engendered by hectic modernization, wider contact with the West and rapid abandonment of Maoist principles.

The implications for the Soviet Union perhaps may be even more profound. For twenty years, the U.S. sought to isolate and contain China, with limited success and at enormous cost. Now the open-ended burden of keeping China poor and weak has shifted to the Soviet Union. The task is a bone in the Soviet throat, and Moscow knows it. As the new reality of the enduring Sino-Soviet conflict and the decisive Chinese tilt to the West has become evident, Moscow has begun its countermeasures:

—The Brezhnev trip to Siberia in the company of Ustinov, perhaps the most menacing gesture Moscow has made in the border region since 1969.

—[1 paragraph (3 lines) not declassified]

—The clumsy but unremitting effort to prevent Western European countries from selling sensitive technologies to China.

—The pressures on Japan not to sign the Peace and Friendship Treaty, with all the animosity it generated, and the pressure on India to conform more closely to Soviet diplomatic strategy.

—The public support of Vietnam in its current quarrels and the rapid induction of Hanoi into CEMA.2

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—The rapid exploitation of the situation in Afghanistan following the recent coup.

—[1 paragraph (3 lines) not declassified]

These are all, in a sense, preliminary measures. China has the initiative, and the Soviet Union is still formulating its responses. One wonders whether the list might eventually include limited use of forces against China and/or more sweeping inducements to Washington for the formation of a Soviet-U.S. global condominium.

It is obvious that continued animosity between Moscow and Peking, coupled with a broadening in the Sino-U.S. relationship, brings us beneficial security and economic dividends. Two cautionary notes should be added, however. First, the Chinese will continue their effort deliberately to induce tensions between Moscow and Washington that would drive the U.S. and the Soviet Union farther apart. While we can live with some of the resulting difficulties, we must guard against Chinese efforts to make our policy for us. Second, we must also guard against Chinese efforts to create a dependency relationship in which Peking, playing on its own relative weakness, asks us for more—politically and economically—than we will wish to deliver. The resultant disillusion on both sides would in some ways parallel what happened to the Sino-Soviet relationship in the late 1950s, and we obviously wish to avoid a repetition of that experience.

On balance, though, the Chinese tilt toward the U.S. is a favorable development of major proportions. If we play our cards carefully, we may be able to exclude Soviet power from footholds in East Asia and to keep it from expanding in Southeast Asia. The favorable opportunities we now can see in Asia can be turned into a major political asset for the President as he prepares for the struggles of 1980. I want to address this question in another memorandum.3

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Council, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box 42, PRM–24 [1]. Top Secret; Codeword. Sent for information. Brzezinski circled the date and wrote, “10 days to get to me! ZB.”
  2. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam joined the Soviet-led Council for Mutual Economic Assistance in 1978.
  3. At the bottom of the page, Inderfurth wrote, “Mike, We need this (in an abbreviated form) in the Weekly Report to the President. Rick” A shorter, less analytical version was sent to Carter, who wrote his initial “C” on it, as NSC Weekly Report #71, September 1. (Carter Library, Brzezinski Donated Material, Subject File, Box 41, Weekly Report [to the President], 61–71, 6/78–9/78)