205. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • The President
  • The Vice President
  • Secretary of State Cyrus Vance
  • Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Zbigniew Brzezinski
  • Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping
  • Vice Premier Fang Yi
  • Foreign Minister Huang Hua
  • Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Zhang Wenjin


  • Vietnam

The President: We are doing what we can to encourage other nations to reduce foreign aid to Vietnam as long as the Vietnamese are the invaders.2 It is significant that LDCs now condemn Vietnam as the aggressor. We will not pursue discussions regarding normalization under these circumstances. We are encouraging the ASEAN countries to stand united against Vietnam, and we are increasing military aid to Thailand. We have also warned the Soviet Union in strong terms about the damage to their relations with us if they pursue their aggression against Cambodia.

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Deng: What was the Soviet reaction?

Vance: They will report to the Politburo and then respond.3

Deng: There probably will be no reply.

In the small circle let me state our view and possible measures we may adopt. These are very serious questions. We want to discuss them with the U.S. Government. We find that Vietnam has become totally Soviet controlled, and the fact of its flagrant invasion of Cambodia, its plot to establish an Indochinese Federation under Vietnamese control is more grave than you think. At least a majority of ASEAN countries assesses this an extremely grave matter. Not long ago I visited Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. At that time, they believed Hanoi’s promises. But when Vietnam attacked Cambodia, they realized they had been taken in.

At the same time, they expressed the hope that China will be able to do something. Some friends even criticized China for being too soft. Thus ASEAN countries are now in the front line.

I don’t know if you know that the so-called Indochinese Federation is to include more than three states. Ho Chi Minh cherished this idea. The three states is only the first step. Then Thailand is to be included. Thus, in Ho’s views, the Federation goes beyond three states.

Vietnam, despite internal difficulties is beefing up its military capabilities. They claim one million men under arms; actually they have 500,000 men. Their economic situation is extremely difficult. Food is in short supply; only armed forces are supplied well insofar as nourishment is concerned. Yet they engage in expansionism. They have increased the military age for mountain people up to 37; for people living on the plains up to 45.

In the international arena, many feel Vietnam will fall more deeply into Soviet arms. That is actually not the question. The bases have already been built by the Americans. Vietnam has many new modern airports and naval bases.

Vietnam is playing the role of Cuba. Of course, the Soviet Union will make use of Vietnam to harass China. Vietnam is also an important factor in the Soviet “Asian collective security system.”

If Vietnam is allowed to continue on its unbridled path, there will be changes in the ASEAN countries. They have complicated internal situations. There are thus loopholes for the Soviets to exploit.

Our general view is that we must disrupt Soviet strategic dispositions. If we do not disrupt with strength, we will only create more trouble.

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The Thais are worried about Vietnamese aggression and also about changes within Thailand.

As for China, there have been constant boundary problems, with no end. The Vietnamese create trouble for us day in and day out. There are continuous incidents and small scale conflicts. The Vietnamese now are extremely arrogant. They now claim to be even the third most powerful military nation in the world, after the United States and the Soviet Union.

The Vietnamese thus are very conceited. They even say that one Vietnamese soldier can fight 30 Chinese soldiers. When faced with such rampant ambitions, not putting a halt on them won’t do. Proceeding therefore from global strategic as well as from Asian considerations, we consider it necessary to put a restraint on the wild ambitions of the Vietnamese and to give them an appropriate limited lesson.

And, of course, we have considered whether this will give rise to a chain reaction. We have reviewed this in detail.

The lesson will be limited to a short period of time. Thus, the problem of a chain reaction is mainly the question of the North. Your information is better. You know we have concentrated some forces. You also know what the Soviets are doing. It is not conceivable for the Soviets not to react at all. But we do not expect a large reaction.

It is now winter time. Large-scale operations in the North are not easy. If our action in the South is quickly completed, they won’t have time to react.

If we do not punish them, their violent actions will continue on a greater scale. They will expand their activities also on China’s borders. Border incidents will continue and become larger.

Morally speaking, to sit idly when Cambodia is being overrun is not right. Now two thirds of the Vietnamese forces are in the South; one third is in the North.

Some punishment over a short period of time will put a restraint on Vietnamese ambitions.

We have considered the possibility that reaction from the North might be big. We are not afraid—they could not shift their forces to the Far East that quickly. Their existing forces in the Far East are too limited. However, we must consider the worst possibility. Even if they increase their numbers, we can hold out.

We need your moral support in the international field.

The President: This is a serious issue. Not only do you face a military threat from the North, but also a change in international attitude. China is now seen as a peaceful country that is against aggression. The ASEAN countries, as well as the UN, have condemned the Soviet Union, Vietnam, and Cuba. I do not need to know the punitive action [Page 769] being contemplated, but it could result in escalation of violence and a change in the world posture from being against Vietnam to partial support for Vietnam.

It would be difficult for us to encourage violence. We can give you intelligence briefings. We know of no recent movements of Soviet troops towards your borders.

I have no other answer for you. We have joined in the condemnation of Vietnam, but invasion of Vietnam would be very serious destabilizing action. What is your response to my comments? This matter requires more study. It’s of greater concern to you than to us.

I should note that eight of the nations we approached to cut off aid to Vietnam have already done so.

Deng: We have noted what you said to us, that you want us to be restrained. It is not that we did not consider this. We feel that looking at the world situation—for example, Cuban presence has grown to 50,000 troops in Africa, yet they have never been punished—and now the Cubans have even expanded their activities without anyone stopping them—it follows that if they are not restrained, they will continue.

We intend a limited action. Our troops will quickly withdraw. We’ll deal with it like a border incident.

Some will curse us—but more people will recognize the necessity of the action. After we fought with the Indians,4 we withdrew very rapidly and released all the POW’s (even repaired captured equipment and returned it).5

Therefore what we plan to do is a limited short time action, to give them a lesson. If done properly, it might even give rise to some changes within Laos and Vietnam.6 There are different viewpoints in Vietnam still, the North is against the South, their ethnic conflicts, and the morale of the armed forces is not very strong. Accordingly, a lesson along the border might bring about changes in Vietnam also. There is not too much difficulty in giving them a lesson along the border.

The problem might be the North. We do not expect a major reaction. But if there is to be one, they will have to withdraw troops from Europe. If they withdraw troops from the West, that will be beneficial to Iran and Europe.

We understand it will be difficult for you to give an affirmative answer. Sometimes one has to do something one does not wish to.

Our warnings to Vietnam were of no use. We are happy about persuading countries not to give aid, but that doesn’t put restraint on Viet[Page 770]nam. There is the question of timing: if we wait until Cambodia is subdued, they can use all of their forces against us. If we do this well and quickly, we will have a more tranquil boundary.

The President: I would like to talk to you tomorrow—privately.7 In the meantime, I would like to assess American reactions, of my own people. The situation is serious. I understand you cannot allow Vietnam to pursue aggression with impunity.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Office, Outside the System File, Box 47, China: President’s Meeting with Vice Premier Deng: 1–2/79. Top Secret. At the top of the page, Brzezinski wrote, “ZB’s notes, reviewed by P,” to indicate that he had taken these notes, and Carter had reviewed them. Carter’s additions are noted in the footnotes below.
  2. Carter added “to encourage other nations.”
  3. Carter added “and then respond.”
  4. Deng is referring to the 1962 Sino-Indian border conflict.
  5. Carter added the parenthetical note.
  6. Carter added “Laos and.”
  7. See Document 207.