170. Backchannel Message From the Chief of the Liaison Office in China (Woodcock) to Secretary of State Vance and the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1

236. Subject: Session With Teng December 15. Ref: WH81614, Peking 231.2

1. I had an hour long session with Vice Premier Teng Hsiao-ping at 4:00 P.M. December 15 focused on the arms sales issue. The discussion confirmed that we have serious differences over this issue, that the Chinese would feel compelled to respond publicly to any statement by the President affirming that we would continue arms sales to Taiwan after 1979, but that Teng is prepared nevertheless to proceed with our normalization schedule as planned. He urged, however, that the President find some means of avoiding direct answers to questions on arms sales. He noted that a public controversy over this issue no sooner than normalization had taken place would reduce the significance of normalization.

2. During the discussion we covered much previous ground. When I confirmed our intention to continue selling arms to Taiwan after 1979, Teng stated emphatically that he could not agree. He noted that this position had been conveyed to us in December 4 by Acting Foreign Minister Han subsequent to the President’s remarks to Ambassador Ch’ai on September 19.3 Noting that we no longer had significant numbers of troops on Taiwan, he said that continued arms sales would amount to retaining the essence of the MDT, that such sales would block efforts to find a rational means of settling the Taiwan issue peacefully, and that force would be left as the last resort. He urged the U.S. to act in ways compatible with peaceful reunification rather than the obverse.

3. I stressed in response that our statements on arms sales would take into account Chinese sensitivities, that we would not misrepresent Chinese views or imply their consent, that over time public moods in the U.S. would change and make this question easier to handle, and that we had no intention of opposing peaceful settlement. I noted that 1979 provided a one year breathing space during which much could [Page 649] happen. I pointed out that American political realities were such that no administration could be in the position of denying arms to Taiwan, and that we did not expect the Chinese to agree to such sales.

4. Our discussion of this issue was characterized by two differing moods. During the first, our differences over the issue were highlighted as we each argued our positions. During the second, Teng began to search for ways of managing the problem. He repeatedly stressed the importance of having the President avoid direct answers on arms sales that would force the Chinese into responding. If we could set this question aside, it could be discussed at a later stage between our two governments, but public statements would result in damaging public controversy between us.

5. Teng asked in conclusion whether we should defer issuing the documents while waiting for an answer or go ahead as planned. I said that our purpose in raising the question was to insure that there would be no surprises. If questions on arms sales were raised, our answers would take Chinese sensitivities into account. Teng agreed to proceed on this basis, but stressed that if the President created the impression that we would continue selling arms to Taiwan, the Chinese would make an appropriate public response, a situation the Chinese would hope to avoid.

6. In my view, we have come full circle on this issue. We cannot agree on the arms sales question but we can agree to disagree. This disagreement cannot be kept private to the extent that we state publicly our views on arms sales. The only hint of forebearance in Teng’s remarks was linked to the degree that we could preserve public ambiguity on this issue. In short, Teng will not give us a free ride. I continue to believe we should move ahead. The full transcript follows.4

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Office, Outside the System File, Box 47, China: Normalization with PRC: Incoming Cables: 12/78. Top Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only; Flash; Via Voyager Channels.
  2. See Document 169 and footnote 6 thereto.
  3. See Documents 159 and 135, respectively.
  4. Backchannel message 237 from Beijing to the White House, December 15, transmitted the full transcript of the meeting. (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Office, Outside the System File, Box 47, China: Normalization with PRC: Incoming Cables: 12/78)