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


  • Impressions on Our China Policy to Date

I have recently completed organizing your chronological file of papers dealing with our China policy since we came into office. Rick now has this stack of documentation in his files, with a table of contents (Tab A).2

I thought I might share with you from reflections, as I review the enormous amount of work we have done in 18 months.

1. Our China policy has gone through five discernible stages:

Discovery (January–March, 1977): This period involved the President’s meeting with Huang Chen and the exploration of the NixonKissinger memcons. It ended with our decision not to treat Nixon’s five points as a “pledge” to the Chinese which we wished to sustain. You will recall that you sent a memorandum to the President on this issue, and he accepted the five points. Upon informing Cy of this, Cy requested a reconsideration and the President’s endorsement of the five points was recalled.3 In retrospect, I think that was an important and unfortunate incident. Had we accepted the five points, we would have immediately so informed the Chinese and entered into a serious dialogue on our bilateral relations.

Backburner (April–June, 1977): Instead of moving ahead, we decided to study the matter and to engage in symbolic actions. PRM 24 was commissioned in early April,4 and Chip Carter joined the Brademas Codel at the same time. Then, for nearly three months [Page 522] nothing happened. The Armacost/Oksenberg draft of the Vance speech of June, which projected a more vital strategy in East Asia, was rejected in favor of an unmemorable Vance speech.5 The PRM drafting process ground out slowly. Looking back on this era, I have to be very self-critical, for at that time I was unaware of the influence an NSC Staff Member can bring to bear. The reception which the Chinese accorded you at your June 15, 1977 banquet also did not increase your own desire to push things forward.

Vance Trip (July–August, 1977): Nonetheless, the record shows that the first set of initiatives for improving relations with China rests at your doorstep, with a June 14 memorandum you submitted to the President on this subject.6 His response encouraged us to begin to facilitate the transfer of technology to China, to begin thinking of Frank Press’s involvement in Chinese affairs, and to enhance our consultative relations with China. The catalyst for thinking about our China policy, however, was the Vance visit. Planning for that trip began with a late June PRC meeting on PRM 24 and culminated in a July 30 meeting with the President in which he encouraged Cy to make a candid and forthcoming presentation, including the tabling of a draft communique.7 Cy left for China with such a communique in his pocket.8 In spite of the high expectations, in a memorandum to the President you noted that in fact in several ways Cy’s presentation represented a step back from Ford’s presentation—and that the international situation probably was not conducive to a favorable Chinese response. You noted that we had not prepared the strategic groundwork to encourage Chinese flexibility.9 The records will show that the August 22–25 Vance visit did not achieve its intended objective; it did not stimulate a Chinese interest either in normalization or in advancing their bilateral relations with us short of normalization.

Backburner (September 1977–March 1978): With the Panama Canal on the agenda, the Chinese reaction to the Vance presentation, and the bureaucratic divisions within our own government over China policy, China policy entered another hiatus. During this backburner phase, you bore the initiative for China policy; you elicited the Chinese invitation for you to visit China; you pushed the issue of Chinese technology transfer to China, which culminated in a January 30, 1978 PRC [Page 523] meeting which also touched on sale of military equipment to the PRC by Western Europe and Japan;10 and you began your consultative conversations with Han Hsu in early January.

Brzezinski Trip and Its Aftermath (March 1978–Present): The logjam was broken in mid-March, when the President approved your trip to Peking.11 Historians will note that we placed the call to Han Hsu indicating that you were prepared to respond to Huang Chen’s invitation one day following the passage of the first treaty on the Panama Canal and that we set the date for your trip one day after passage of the second treaty. From this time on, the files show, a high percentage of the documents are simply memcons of the many meetings which you or I have had with the Chinese. With your trip as the catalyst, we made the Daedalus decision and the decision to draw down forces from Taiwan. You also elicited instructions from the President for your trip to Peking which reiterated Nixon’s five points and accepted the Chinese three conditions. What transpired on your trip and since then is no doubt more fresh in your mind, and I need not repeat it here.12

2. The question before us now is whether the momentum will be sustained through the forthcoming trips by Schlesinger and Bergland and through the Woodcock negotiations, or whether in the inevitable ebb and flow of history, we may not be reaching the high tide of this surge. One senses that a down-turn could set in because of the sale of the F–5G to Taiwan, which is certain to provoke anger in Peking, though to what extent is uncertain; the Vietnam situation, where I fear that the rush of events may lead us to move ahead with Vietnam so rapidly that it will interfere in our China policy; and the fact that our negotiations on normalization have for the first time gotten to the two core issues—what Peking will say about its intent toward Taiwan and about our determination to continue arms sales to Taiwan.

3. You have played the following roles throughout our 18 months here:

Conceptual: The way we conceive of this relationship is due to your formulation. The notion that our relations with China consists of three dimensions and that we seek to move ahead in all three without linkage was first floated by you at the meeting with the President on the eve of Cy’s trip. The formulations about China being central due to maintenance of the global equilibrium and that a strong and secure China are in our interests also come from you. The President’s Notre [Page 524] Dame speech essentially established the framework within which we have been working ever since.13

Initiative: Frankly, I had not been prepared for the degree to which the record shows that initiative for our China policy has been yours. In fact, it is fair to say that the only two issues for which you cannot claim credit are Taiwan troop drawdown and Cy’s trip. I also suspect that had you pushed harder earlier China policy may have been PRM 8 rather than PRM 24, for I recall those seminars in March–April, 1977, when you exhibited healthy skepticism about the value of a China connection. Nonetheless, on all other matters the initiative has been yours and I shudder to think where we would be without its initiatives, particularly your trip and the President’s instructions, the Press trip, the Daedalus decision, the relationship you cultivated with Han, and I suspect eventually the Olympus Marine Engine deal. Your major ally for initiating action in the bureaucracy has been Harold Brown.

Caution: An interesting role that I had not focused on before has been the cautionary role, warning of the pitfalls, and indicating the trouble spots ahead. If anything, I think this role should be augmented and you could do even more to point out costs that are likely to be paid or constraints that are likely to be faced by alternative courses of action.

Toughness: You have played an important role in making sure our stance on normalization is suitably tough and that we do not pursue normalization as an end in itself. Here you are acting as the President’s representative, for his own statements are surprisingly consistent on the package he desires.


I went through this material trying to think of ways that we might improve our policy process in the China realm. Frankly, it is hard to think of any. I think we are doing well. There have been occasional lapses, but they are inevitable. Our leaks have been few, in part I think because we have attempted to keep the circle very small. Our relations with State have been collegial and cordial. There is a source of satisfaction to be able to write a paper that reaches these conclusions.

  1. Source: Carter Library, Brzezinski Donated Material, Geographic File, Box 9, China (People’s Republic of): Normalization: 12/18/78–12/31/78. Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only; Alpha; Outside the System. Sent for information.
  2. Tab A, a table of papers about China, is attached but not printed.
  3. No such memorandum has been found. Patrick Tyler’s book, A Great Wall: Six Presidents and China: An Investigative History, claims that Oksenberg “drafted a memo to Brzezinski recommending that the president authorize the secretary of state, at the first opportunity, to reaffirm the NixonFord assurances. Brzezinski took the memo, added his own cover note, and sent it to the president for approval.” Tyler wrote that Vance was furious when he learned that the Department of State had been circumvented; “He demanded that the Oksenberg memorandum be withdrawn and that all copies of the original memo be collected and shredded.” Tyler added, “All but one copy was destroyed. Oksenberg squirreled it away for Carter’s presidential archive.” (pp. 237–239)
  4. See Document 24.
  5. See footnote 3, Document 43.
  6. See Document 31.
  7. For the PRC meeting of June 27, see Document 34. For the July 30 meeting, see Document 41.
  8. See Document 46. For accounts of Vance’s meetings during his August 1977 trip to China, see Documents 4752.
  9. Brzezinski’s memorandum has not been identified.
  10. No record of this meeting has been found.
  11. See Document 86.
  12. See Documents 108111.
  13. In his commencement address at Notre Dame on May 22, 1977, Carter declared: “It’s important that we make progress toward normalizing relations with the People’s Republic of China. We see the American and Chinese relationship as a central element of our global policy and China as a key force for global peace. We wish to cooperate closely with the creative Chinese people on the problems that confront all mankind. And we hope to find a formula which can bridge some of the difficulties that still separate us.” The full text of the speech is printed in Public Papers: Carter, 1978, pp. 954–962.