233. Memorandum from Secretary of Defense Brown to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1


  • Sino-American Relations

Now that we have normalized relations with Peking, we face a number of issues on future military defense contacts with the PRC. I believe it is important that we approach these issues with some conceptual understanding of the interrelation between our policies toward China and the USSR. It is equally important that we develop a strategy for utilizing the security component of our relationship with Peking to maximum advantage.

A member of my staff has prepared the attached paper setting forth some observations and general guidelines for dealing with this [Page 843] matter. I believe it would be worthwhile to use this paper as a springboard for an early discussion of this subject at a PRC or SCC meeting.

Harold Brown


U.S.–PRC Security Cooperation: Enduring Dilemmas and Present Choices

I. Introduction

The Sino-Vietnamese conflict, and the related heightening of Sino-Soviet tensions, has now created a situation in which Moscow’s feud with Beijing threatens to spill over into East Asian security matters of direct concern to American interests. We now face important choices in our dealings with the PRC on security issues which will have a direct bearing on, a) the future of our now-normal relationship with the Chinese, b) management of the “Strategic Triangle” and Soviet-American relations, and c) the security interests of our allies in East and Southeast Asia.

This paper is designed to highlight these choices and the dilemmas surrounding them. At the core of the present situation is the issue of whether we can develop security ties with the Chinese in a way which will constrain and caution the Soviets rather than provoke them, and whether we can strengthen PRC defenses in a manner which will stabilize East Asian security relations without exposing our allies and friends in the region to a heightened Chinese military threat. These perspectives are basic to current efforts to dissuade the Soviets from establishing permanent naval and air facilities in Vietnam, a development which would have significant implications not only for the security of Southeast Asia, but also for great power relations regionally and globally.

We Already have a Security Relationship with the Chinese

Since 1972, we have developed a relationship with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) which increasingly has some of the qualities of a security coalition. This relationship is based largely on common anti-Soviet interests. Initially we and the Chinese developed parallel policies on certain foreign policy issues, such as the Middle East, and tacit cooperation on others—such as Japan and NATO. In the last two years we have come some distance toward developing more direct and active security dealings with the PRC. We have exchanged views on a wide range of security issues at the highest level; we have provided the Chinese information on Soviet military capabilities; we have not ob[Page 844]jected to third country arms sales to China; and, while maintaining “even-handedness” in providing technology to the USSR and PRC, we have been somewhat more forthcoming in response to Chinese requests for purchase of dual-use technology.

Now that we have normalized diplomatic relations with Beijing, and in the context of the Indochina hostilities, there will be heightened pressures to enlarge the security component of the relationship. In the near future we will face a number of specific issues that will shape the future contours of Sino-American security ties. For example:

—How should we respond to evidence of an expanded Soviet military presence in Vietnam and the possibility of the establishment of base facilities there?

—What advice should we give to the Thais concerning PRC requests for cooperation in supplying the insurgency in Kampuchea?

—Should we respond favorably to Deng Xiaoping’s request that the U.S. Seventh Fleet visit PRC ports?

—Can we effectively coordinate Korea policy with Beijing in order to facilitate North-South discussions and reduce tensions, or do we continue to “agree to disagree” with China on the Korean issue for the sake of preserving the status quo?

—Shall we expand our military-to-military contacts with China? If so, how and at what pace?

—How should we respond to Beijing’s requests—and increased domestic commercial pressures—for expanded sales of dual-use technology to China? Should we seek to develop common approaches to arms sales to the PRC with our NATO allies?

II. Managing the Sino-Soviet-American Triangle

As our bilateral relations with the Chinese deepen in the period ahead, the day-to-day pull of direct dealings in the economic, political, and security areas will tend to obscure the basic reality of triangular politics: that what we do with the Chinese will have some effect on our relations with the Soviets. To foreswear all security cooperation with Beijing would limit the development of US–PRC relations, leave the Chinese more exposed to Soviet pressures, and probably raise questions in the minds of PRC leaders about the value of their current “tilt” toward the U.S. Yet to the degree that we support PRC foreign policy actions—as we now might do in Indochina—and gratify, either directly or via third parties, Beijing’s interest in acquiring Western arms and advanced technology, we may impose strains on US-Soviet relations and enhance concerns in Japan and Southeast Asia about the possibility of a Sino-Soviet confrontation.

American policy must be designed to reconcile these conflicting tendencies. We must seek to strengthen our dealings with the Chinese [Page 845] sufficiently to inhibit Soviet actions, but avoid gratuitously provoking Moscow or stimulating concerns on the part of our Asian friends and allies. And we must give Beijing incentives to pursue cooperative relations with us without signaling to Moscow a U.S. intent to play the Chinese against them regardless of Soviet restraint.

III. Three Views of U.S.–PRC Security Relations

Depending on our other security-related actions, U.S.–PRC relations may be perceived either as a supplement or substitute for U.S. strength and resolve. If, for example, the U.S. maintains and strengthens its military presence in Asia while concurrently developing security ties with China, U.S.–PRC security relations would be seen as a supplement to U.S. strength. In such a context, reactions would be quite different than if we were reducing our military presence in Asia. In the latter circumstance, we would be perceived as attempting to use US–PRC security relations to compensate for a lack of resolve or declining U.S. power in the area.

A. The view from Moscow. Soviet perceptions of U.S.–PRC relations are difficult to gauge because Soviet interests argue strongly for the leadership in Moscow to conceal whatever anxieties it may have about improved U.S.–PRC relations. In retrospect, it appears that the initiation of direct, high-level Sino-American contacts in 1971–72 had the effect of reinforcing Soviet interest in détente with the U.S., as evidenced by the subsequent conclusion of SALT I, a Berlin agreement, and a NixonBrezhnev summit. Similarly, continued strong Soviet interest in reaching a SALT II agreement and a Carter–Brezhnev summit, in the wake of US–PRC normalization and Deng Xiaoping’s visit to Washington, supports this conclusion.

How the Soviets will react to the future expansion of Sino-American security ties will depend on the specific improvements involved and the larger political-military context in which they occur. The most salient features of the larger context will include the state of Sino-Soviet, Soviet-American, and Sino-American relations. Most important, however, will be Moscow’s perception of whether U.S.–PRC security relations will expand regardless of Soviet behavior, or whether future improvements in Sino-American relations can be delayed or precluded by Soviet actions.

Given the current state of “triangular politics,” the global context of relations among the three major powers will tend to be more important (within limits), than the specific form of U.S.–PRC cooperation in shaping Soviet reactions.

—A continuation of the current level of U.S.–PRC security cooperation—parallel policies, consultations, diplomatic support, acquiescence in limited third country sales of defensive arms, and provision of [Page 846] dual-use technology on an ostensibly “even handed” basis—is not likely to elicit a strong Soviet response.

—Similarly, we can probably broaden security ties with the PRC in limited ways—such as the exchange of military attaches, U.S. ship visits to the PRC, exchange visits by military students—without triggering a strong Soviet reaction. In each of these instances, we have had similar contacts with the Soviets.

—To go beyond this level of U.S.–PRC security interaction could risk a reaction from Moscow that would not serve our interests. The sale of U.S. military equipment to China, and the training of Chinese military students, would seem to fall in this category.

Our policy objective with the Soviets should be to establish a credible institutional basis for US–PRC security cooperation but to expand forms of cooperation only in response to actions on Moscow’s part which threaten American and Chinese interests. Only in this way can we develop some leverage or constraint over Soviet behavior through our dealings with the Chinese.

B. The View from Beijing. The Chinese are likely to view a U.S.–PRC security relationship within a superior-subordinate framework in which the stronger partner of a relationship is expected to protect the weaker partner. Typically, the weaker partner seeks to manipulate his protector and feels betrayed when the patron fails to provide adequate support. This is a basic element of the Chinese political style and was clearly reflected in the development of Sino-Soviet security relations when the PRC, in 1958, first tried to use and then felt betrayed by the USSR during its confrontation with the U.S. over Quemoy and Matsu.

China will also view U.S.–PRC security relations in geopolitical terms. In this regard, PRC leaders see the U.S. as a strategic counterweight to the Soviet Union and will seek to use security relations with us as a means of constraining the USSR. This was clearly Deng’s intent in timing China’s military action against Vietnam right after his visit to Washington. At the same time, PRC leaders probably sense the limits of U.S. willingness to oppose Soviet expansionism as evidenced by our inaction in Africa, Afghanistan, Iran, and Indochina. But, given their own weakness vis-a-vis the USSR, the Chinese have few options other than trying to convince us to take a firmer line with Moscow.

In addition, the Chinese are likely to use their recently strengthened ties with the U.S., Japan, and Europe not only to enhance China’s economic and military modernization program, but also to stimulate sufficient tension in Moscow’s relations with us and our allies to divert Soviet pressures away from the PRC. Just as they appear to be determined to use Indochina developments to worsen U.S.-Soviet relations, we may find the Chinese request for more sales of advanced and “dual use” technology, and possibly even military hardware than would [Page 847] seem warranted by a prudent assessment of American interest vis-a-vis the Soviet Union, Japan, and our other Asian allies.

Finally, in keeping with their superior-subordinate view of U.S.–PRC security relations, we can expect the Chinese to make maximum demands on the U.S. while being reluctant to give much in return.

C. The Views of Key Allies. To date, our allies have been out-in-front in the areas of arms sales to China and military-to-military contacts. The British and French, in all likelihood, will eventually conclude some form of arm sales agreement with the PRC. A French frigate has already visited Shanghai, and many of our allies—including Japan—have established military-to-military contacts. Despite their own actions, however, our allies are likely to take a more cautious view of U.S.–PRC security relations.

Japan is a special case in point. By signing a peace treaty and a long-term trade agreement with China, Tokyo has already signaled a limited “tilt” in its relations between Beijing and Moscow. At the same time, the Japanese have attempted to disassociate themselves from PRC policies in Indochina, and will seek to preserve their flexibility in dealing with Sino-Soviet rivalry. The Japanese have also expressed doubts about the benefits of a Sino-Japanese-U.S. security connection, fearing complications in relations with Moscow, a loss of diplomatic freedom of action, and the inevitable Diet criticism. Beyond this, the development of U.S.–PRC security relations would raise more immediate problems for Tokyo. The sale of U.S. arms or the liberal provision of dual-use technology to the PRC would generate concerns about the augmentation of China’s strength in the regional balance, raise worries that the PRC might pass on such equipment to third countries like North Korea, and heighten doubts about U.S. claims that the U.S.–Japan relationship remains the pillar of our Pacific strategy.

Our European allies might also become concerned. Schmidt and Giscard have already expressed some reservations about our handling of the China issue. The development of an active U.S.–PRC security relationship might cause them to disassociate themselves from U.S. actions, except in a context of an evident threat from Moscow, in order to avert Soviet pressures to which they are more directly exposed.

It is uncertain how our allies would react to specific forms of U.S.–PRC security cooperation. As in the Soviet case, their response would be influenced both by the specific act and the larger political-military context within which it occurs. The continuation of current forms of U.S.–PRC security relations would probably elicit little response from our allies. Acts which have a precedent in Soviet-American relations, such as ship visits and low-level military-to-military contacts, might cause some initial concern but could be ex[Page 848]plained away. However, U.S.–PRC security cooperation beyond that “threshold” is likely to generate deeper apprehensions, especially if it precipitates a strong Soviet response and a deterioration in Soviet-American relations.

IV. The View from Washington

There are two distinct rationales for seeking to improve U.S.–PRC security relations. Both of them are conceptually defensible.

A. Using security relations to improve our bilateral relations with China.

It is frequently argued that enhancing our cooperative security relationship with Beijing reduces the possibility of a return to Sino-American confrontation, sustains the collateral benefits to U.S. diplomacy and security policy which have come from past improvements in U.S.–PRC relations,2 and helps minimize the prospect of a Sino-Soviet reconciliation.

However, it is less clear that U.S.–PRC military-to-military relations are needed to retain these benefits. It can be argued plausibly that Beijing’s turn to the West for assistance in modernizing China, the normalization of U.S.–PRC relations, and our parallel strategic interests will be sufficient to avoid a return to confrontation, especially now that our relations have been normalized. In addition, China’s support for U.S. policies in Asia and elsewhere reflects the PRC’s self-interests. And the Sino-Soviet split is likely in any event to persist whether or not a military component is added to Sino-U.S. relations.

Despite these elements of stability in the relationship, failure to be somewhat forthcoming in response to Beijing’s expressed interest in improving security relations with us could affect other aspects of our relations with China.

B. Using U.S.–PRC security relations as a means of gaining some leverage over Soviet behavior. This approach would involve the establishment either of an explicit or implicit linkage between our policies toward China and the USSR. It presumes that the Soviets are sufficiently concerned about the future course of U.S.–China relations either to be more forthcoming in their bilateral relations with us or to moderate their behavior in order to forestall closer U.S.–PRC security ties.

If there is any leverage to be gained over Soviet actions in the U.S.–PRC relationship, it is most likely to be in Moscow’s anticipation [Page 849] that it can influence the future course of Sino-American relations. With the exception, however, of our démarche concerning the possible establishment of Soviet bases in Vietnam—a démarche which may have implied an unconvincing linkage to the Russians—we have not signalled to Moscow that there is any clearcut connection between Soviet conduct and future improvements in U.S.–PRC relations. Quite the contrary, we have publicly and privately taken the position that there is no linkage between our Soviet and China policies. We must purposefully work to develop in the minds of Soviet leaders a sense that future advances in US–PRC security cooperation will be taken only in response to threatening actions on their part.

C. The Limits to U.S.–PRC Security Relations. It can be argued that strengthened US–PRC security ties could force the USSR to react to what they already see as a two front security problem and divert Soviet forces to the Sino-Soviet border, thereby reducing the Soviet threat to NATO and other areas of U.S. interest. The evidence for this proposition is not overwhelmingly based on past experience. In response to a deterioration in relations with Beijing in the early 1960s, the Soviet Union increased the size of its total forces rather than redeploy forces from Europe to Asia. Moreover, Soviet forces in Asia are currently capable of defending against any attack that the Chinese might pose. Hence, before the Soviets would divert forces or expand their deployments along the border, there would have to be a major increase in the perceived threat.

This raises two additional questions. Are we prepared to encourage and/or help subsidize rapid modernization of China’s armed forces? If we are, is there anything that we could do in the near-term either directly or indirectly that would make a major difference? The provisional answer to both questions is probably “no.” Any massive improvement in Chinese military strength may be perceived as potentially threatening by Japan, as well as other friends and allies in the region. Neither would we want to see Chinese forces augmented or improved in such a way or at such a pace as to provoke Soviet preemptive measures designed to “teach the Chinese a lesson” before the PRC becomes too strong.

Finally there is relatively little that the U.S. could do to significantly strengthen China’s armed forces at this time. True, there are some quick fixes—e.g., anti-tank missiles, mobile air defense missiles, improved communications, air defense radars, etc.—which would improve China’s defensive capabilities. However, it is probably beyond our capability to give China the kind of offensive capabilities which would require the Soviets to redeploy forces from Europe to Asia. Equally important, given other demands on China’s resources, it is un[Page 850]likely that the PRC would undertake the military modernization effort required to obtain such an offensive capability.

In short, improvements in U.S.–PRC security cooperation by necessity will have to be primarily symbolic in effect.

V. U.S. Policy Objectives

With these considerations in mind, U.S. policy objectives should be:

A. To the extent necessary use U.S.–PRC security relations to improve our bilateral relations with China.

The key factors here are Beijing’s interest in using U.S.–PRC security ties for their own anti-Soviet purposes, the reservations of our allies concerning U.S.–PRC security ties, and the opportunities that the normalization of U.S.–PRC diplomatic relations creates for economic and scientific and technological cooperation.

A related issue is the need to avoid false expectations on the part of the Chinese. Nothing would be worse for the long-term future of Sino-American relations than to create the impression that we are willing to establish an active U.S.–PRC security relationship and then back away during a crisis to avoid adversely affecting Soviet-American relations.

Finally, we need to avoid creating the impression in Beijing that we are using U.S.–PRC security ties as a substitute for unilateral U.S. action in meeting the Soviet threat. If the U.S. is perceived as dealing from a position of weakness, Chinese interest in U.S.–PRC security cooperation will rapidly wane and the utility of such cooperation as a means of improving bilateral relations will diminish accordingly.

B. Develop U.S.–PRC security relations as a means of gaining some leverage over Soviet behavior.

First, we need to keep the Soviet’s attention. There is some evidence to suggest that by 1978 the six-year delay in normalizing US–PRC relations was responsible for a rather relaxed Soviet attitude toward Sino-American relations. Normalization, of course, has reestablished the credibility of future improvement in U.S.–PRC security relations. Still, some movement in the area of U.S.–PRC security cooperation would appear desirable as a means of sustaining Soviet attention and concern.

Second, we need to convince the Soviets that an upward spiral in U.S.–PRC security relations is not inevitable and that their conduct—both on bilateral issues and in third areas—will influence the future course of Sino-American relations. We also want them to understand that while we are capable of moving to higher levels of security cooperation with China, we would prefer to avoid mutual defense arrangements if we can.

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Third, we should inform Moscow, in a general way, that we intend to proceed in certain areas with the PRC as a natural result of normalization, while avoiding explicit “if-you-do-this-we-will-do-that” formulations. At the same time we should avoid gratuitous reassurances, and particularly avoid making advance commitments to the Soviets not to cross particular security thresholds with the PRC. Instead, in response to expressions of Soviet concerns we should make the point that US–PRC cooperation is not designed to threaten other powers, but that to the extent that we and the Chinese see common threats to our security interests, parallel or cooperative responses of a defensive nature may be developed. Since the Soviets probably assume that sooner or later we will heighten our security cooperation with Beijing, it will appear less hypocritical if we communicate directly our contingent position on the future of U.S.–PRC security cooperation, while also indicating to them that if they show restraint, we will also show restraint. The net result of such an approach would be to put the ball in the Soviet court.

C. Avoid drifting into a security relationship with China which would work to our disadvantage. There are ample reasons for caution in expanding our security relations with the Chinese. However, events may develop a momentum of their own, and, if we are not careful, we could become the captive rather than the master of events. A slow, measured approach will give us more room to maneuver vis-a-vis the Soviets; that is, by not automatically expanding U.S.–PRC security relations we can avoid preempting or foregoing steps that could be used to respond to specific Soviet actions. For these reasons, we need to carefully and consciously determine which steps to take now and which to reserve for future use in contingencies.

VI. What Could We Do?

There are several steps that can now be taken to expand US–PRC security relations. Some of them are already under consideration; others are likely to be raised in the near future.

The establishment of a Defense Attache Office in Peking, U.S. ship visits to the PRC, and low level military-to-military contacts such as the proposed visit to China by members of the Staff and Faculty of the National War College can be categorized as normal outgrowths of the establishment of formal diplomatic relations. We already have had such contacts with the Soviets. Similarly, we can ask Chinese officials to speak at U.S. military schools or authorize military officers engaged in area studies involving China to visit the PRC. While the Soviets would undoubtedly note these contacts, they could not characterize them as gratuitously provocative or threatening to the interests of the USSR. At the same time, we do not want slavishly to pursue a precise “even-[Page 852]handed” approach. There is room for greater contact and more warmth with the PRC in these areas than with the Soviets.

Other actions appear more appropriate for signalling our intent to improve US–PRC security relations in response to particular future Soviet actions. In some cases, Soviet precedents exist (see Annex A),3 but the nature of the action would catch greater Soviet attention and might provoke sufficient concern as to make them consider modifying their conduct. Possible actions along this line include the following:

—authorize the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to participate on a reimbursable basis in the development of China’s inland waterways;

—invite Chinese diplomatic officials stationed in Washington to tour U.S. military installations;

—invite a high-ranking Chinese military official to visit the US or send a DOD delegation to China;

—invite Chinese observers to witness US Navy exercises in the Western Pacific;

—openly encourage third country arms sales to China or explicitly adopt a pro-China “tilt” in the provision of dual-use technology to the PRC and USSR.

These examples are arranged in an ascending order of sensitivity from the Soviet perspective, and clearly we would not undertake them all at once. Instead, they represent a range of actions that would demonstrate to the Soviets that we have established a framework of normal ties within which we can escalate cooperation in response to specific Soviet actions.

Beyond this level, there is another series of actions whose implementations would presumably affect Soviet-American relations in a significant and adverse fashion. These include the training of Chinese military students in US schools, the sale of US military equipment to China, overt US–PRC intelligence exchanges, and joint US–PRC military exercises.

VII. Next Steps

Given the U.S. objectives identified earlier, and the range of actions just discussed, there are several actions that the US should consider taking in the area of US–PRC security cooperation.

First, we should take those routine steps clearly associated with the establishment of diplomatic relations. Specifically, we should establish a Defense Attache office in Peking, initiate low-level military-to-military contacts, and consider U.S. ship visits to China later in the year.

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Second, we need deliberately to cultivate some ambiguity and flexibility in our policies towards China as a means of worrying the Soviets while preserving our own options. For example, at the moment the Administration is on the public record as opposing direct American sales of military equipment to the PRC, while taking the position that the U.S. will not oppose third country sales of defensive military equipment to China. This combination of positions poses two problems. Our flat “no sales” policy minimizes Soviet incentives for avoiding actions that might affect the evolution of our dealings with the Chinese; yet we are encouraging a pattern of third country sales over which we have but limited influence and which will very likely be driven by third country economic considerations rather than by a collective security perspective. In short, the lack of ambiguity in our current arms sales policy complicates rather than assists in the attainment of our objectives vis-a-vis U.S.–PRC security cooperation.

Finally, we need to communicate more effectively our intent to link improvements in U.S.–PRC security relations and Soviet actions. The timing of such an approach to the Soviets and the context in which it is developed are critical. If we are to create the impressions discussed earlier—namely, that improvements in U.S.–PRC security relations are not inevitable, that while we are willing to consider security ties with China we are not eager to do so, and that such relations are a supplement and not a substitute for U.S. resolve—the approach should be made at a time when Soviet-American relations are on the upswing. If a SALT II agreement is reached and a summit meeting is held, this might provide an appropriate opportunity to communicate our intent to Moscow.

  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, OSD Files: FRC 330–82–0205, China (Reds), Feb–Sept, 1979. Secret; Sensitive. McGiffert sent this memorandum to Brown under a March 17 covering memorandum that reads, “Several weeks ago Mike Armacost gave you some talking points (Tab A) concerning the relationship between Sino-U.S. security ties and possible Soviet efforts to establish a naval presence in Indochina for use at the February 23 SCC meeting. You subsequently asked that these be turned into a memo from you to Zbig Brzezinski. The attached paper responds to your request.” The talking points, which are also attached to McGiffert’s memorandum, examine the “Future Course of Sino-American Relations.” On these talking points, Brown wrote, “Mike A.—Let’s turn this into a memo from me to ZB.” (Ibid.)
  2. For example, the Chinese no longer work actively to degrade our security relations with Japan; they are enthusiastic supporters of NATO; they support the continued U.S. military presence in the Philippines and the Western Pacific; and, despite their public rhetoric, they support the status quo in Korea. At the same time, the Soviets have become increasingly concerned about what they see as a two-front security problem and have deployed between one-fourth and one-third of their conventional forces in Asia. [Footnote in the original.]
  3. Annex A, a summary of the principal military exchanges between the United States and the Soviet Union, is attached but not printed.