258. Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (Holbrooke) to Vice President Mondale1


  • Your Trip to China: Objectives, Strategy, Tactics

It is almost four years since President Ford visited China. That trip, which the Chinese did not desire, left nothing behind to show for it, and since then no American official higher than the Secretary of State has been to China. In the two years (1976–77) that followed Ford’s trip, the US-Chinese relationship marked time. Then came 1978, the Year of Normalization. 1979 is a year of transition, during which we are winding up our official relations with Taiwan, and completing the normalization of economic relations with China.

Your trip should signal both the completion of that process and the symbolic and substantive entry into the 1980’s of our China relationship—a long-term strategic relationship aimed at encouraging economic and political development in China along with the expansion and broadening of China’s ties with the U.S. and the world.

This goal can best be understood by looking back over the last 30 years. China’s development falls into three clear-cut phases since 1949: the 1950’s were China’s Stalinist and anti-American decade; in the 1960’s China became truly Maoist, turning inward and hostile to both the United States and the Soviet Union. In the 1970’s, the Chinese lead[Page 909]ership reached out to the United States as well as Western Europe and Japan for tactical advantage and some degree of protection against the Soviet Union, which had created a panic in Peking by the invasion of Czechoslovakia and the border fighting with China in 1968–69.

Our basic, long-term objective now should be to convert that inherently fragile, tactical relationship into a stable, long-term strategic one. We should structure our policies so as to enhance the chances that China’s new (and post-Deng) leadership will choose in the 1980’s to cooperate and participate in the world system—something they did not do in any of the three phases from 1949–78. Any other course by China—either a return to an anti-American line or a reversion to an isolationist role—would have obvious adverse consequences for the U.S. and the world.

The development of such a relationship with China will be neither rapid nor easy. Your trip marks the beginning of this effort.

But as we proceed, we should be prepared for important areas of difference with China, such as Korea or perhaps Indochina, to remain or emerge. And, while China is our new friend, our strategic interests will not always be the same. We should, therefore, develop this new relationship in a way that is not misunderstood elsewhere as part of a new “Grand Coalition” embracing Washington, Tokyo, Peking and perhaps the European Community, and designed to isolate the Soviet Union. While Moscow must never be permitted to dictate our China policy, the potentially destabilizing effect of certain types of US–China arrangements should be taken into account as we proceed.

You will convey our readiness to move to the next stage in the relationship by the way you handle the issues on which we seek cooperation and by the way you explain our view of the strategic relationship. While making the Soviet Union an important element in our view of the relationship, we should avoid playing “polar bear” in our presentations.2 The Chinese do not respect such an approach, and it is essential to make clear that we have sought the new relationship with China for its own inherent value, apart from the concern we both have with the Soviet threat.

The Chinese will probably respond in ways suggesting that they are prepared to consider expanding the strategic dimensions of the relationship,3 while continuing to express skepticism over our staying power. An interesting indicator will be the degree to which they share with you sensitive information about Huang Hua’s secret trip to Bangkok last week—a trip in which I suspect that Huang conveyed [Page 910] Chinese decisions of great importance directly to Pol Pot. Another indicator will be their response to some of the more sensitive bilateral matters which you will raise.

Dividing your objectives, then, into the general and specific, I would list:

I. General Objectives

1) To demonstrate to the American people that our new relationship with China is relevant to their concerns, and in our national interests—strategically, politically, economically—in terms of energy, trade and security. Also, to show that normalization worked—an Administration success.4

2) To encourage the Chinese to a greater degree of cooperation with us on a wide range of issues that lie beyond bilateral relations—such as Southeast Asia, Pakistan, Korea, energy, food, perhaps even arms control. The Chinese have shown recent signs of receptivity; now is the time to try for a high-level understanding that we should move beyond tactics.5

3) To demonstrate to the Chinese leadership that we are confident of our global strategy and military strength, and our ability to handle both the Soviet challenge and the world-wide economic and energy challenge. The Soviets are going to face serious economic problems in the 1980’s which are bound to have political implications and you should be prepared to discuss this.

4) To present in private talks to Deng and Hua a persuasive explanation of recent events on the U.S. domestic political scene. I hope that at a minimum you can make clear to the Chinese that whatever happens as our elections approach, we will continue to act in a strong, decisive, and self-confident manner in the international arena. You will also need to explain the departures of various people, especially Jim Schlesinger and Andy Young.

5) To broaden our access and relationships with the Chinese leadership so as, if possible, to reduce our over-identification with Deng and his group without, of course, alienating them. Specifically, to develop a greater degree of involvement by Hua in the American Connection as a stage-setter for his proposed trip to the United States.

II. Specific Objectives

1) To engage the PRC leadership in a serious discussion of Indochinese issues: to test their receptiveness to movement towards a political solution in Cambodia; to find out what Huang Hua did in Thailand; to [Page 911] press them for more help on refugees; to stress the importance we attach to ASEAN.

2) To offer specific areas of greater bilateral cooperation and movement: Ex-Im credit arrangements; OPIC legislation this fall; “friendly nation” status; hydro power; the Canton consulate (I haven’t given up yet!); submission of the trade bill this fall; a big push on civil aviation; specifics on the continued phasedown in Taiwan; cultural exchange.

3) To discuss the possibility of further areas of cooperation in the sensitive strategic field: a possible trip by Harold Brown; [1½ lines not declassified] decisions on sensitive export control items not yet processed through the system; any private assurances that you may be able to give on the explosive question of arms sales to Taiwan after January 1, 1980; etc.

4) To lay the groundwork for greater US–PRC cooperation in South and Central Asia, especially Pakistan and Afghanistan.6

5) To lay the groundwork for a successful trip to the U.S. by Hua Guo Feng “early in 1980”.

6) To explain our Middle East policy, in light of Andy Young’s departure, PRC support for the PLO, and our standing offer to the Israelis to present the case for PRC-Israeli ties whenever appropriate in Peking. (The Chinese won’t bite, but it is still worth raising for other reasons.)

7) To mention American concerns over atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons [less than 1 line not declassified] caution is necessary here in light of the President’s discussion with Deng on the possibility of U.S. advice on underground testing.7

8) To draw the Chinese out on their forthcoming talks with the Soviet Union.


I do not believe you need be concerned that the Chinese will do anything deliberately to embarrass you. It is in their interest that this trip be perceived as a success. But herein lies a pitfall. “Success” often means to them pinging the Russians and the Vietnamese. They may, therefore, do what they did during Deng’s trip here: imply a greater degree of plotting against the USSR and Vietnam than in fact took place. If they are going to do this, they would probably include language to that effect in their dinner toasts. We will be ready to give you some supplementary language for your toasts if it becomes necessary to balance what they say.

[Page 912]

The perennial pitfall into which most American visitors to China fall is to allow themselves to be manipulated. Chinese skills at what has come to be known over the centuries as “barbarian handling” are impressive. The techniques are not particularly subtle but are effective nonetheless. They include superb hospitality with special touches. Every Chinese you encounter, including the waiters, will feed back information about your likes and dislikes and appropriate action will be ordered to see that your room is supplied with your favorite fruit (or, in Joe Califano’s case, that there were no cigarettes).

This softens up the barbarian for the criticism sessions. We do not know the extent to which China’s concern about our staying power and resolve are real. But without question a good part of what you will hear is tactical. Barbarians can be goaded into behaving as China wants if China expresses disapproval; barbarians need approval. Such disapproval is verbal only in part. Even more effective is the gently implied threat to withdraw favorable treatment or to withhold some expected reward (e.g. the uncertainty during Nixon’s first visit over whether and when he would see Mao).

While the Chinese are confident of their cultural superiority over foreigners, they are traditionally fearful that foreigners will try to exploit China. The Chinese believe that the Russians followed this pattern in the 1950’s. [7½ lines not declassified]

Given Huang Hua’s secret trip to Bangkok, it is quite possible that the Chinese will seek to enlist you and the U.S. in support of some new anti-Vietnamese front group that is being created to replace Pol Pot. Any Chinese proposal here must be treated very cautiously.

Structure of Meetings and Tactics

We should structure your meetings so as to advance the above objectives, and, throughout, to demonstrate our readiness for greater cooperation on global and regional problems. One way to do this would be to allocate the issues on our checklist (attached)8 among three different types of meetings: plenary sessions attended by the official party; informal one-on-one talks you will have at the airport, in the car and at dinner; and “private” but structured restricted sessions, involving you and selected members of your party.

Based on the latest schedule, here is how I suggest approaching the key meetings, matching subject to structure:

1) Saturday nightHuang Hua dinner (about two hours)9—This need not be very substantive, although the tone should be one of high [Page 913] seriousness. Your main purpose should be to outline to Huang how you propose to approach the talks, and perhaps to arrange that the last hour or so of the Monday morning session with Deng be restricted. It will be interesting to see if Huang tells you about his secret trip to Bangkok. Huang speaks good English, but will use an interpreter for any serious exchanges.

2) Sunday night—Deng Xiao Ping Dinner (about two hours)—This is a key first meeting. Deng appreciates openness, frankness and directness. You should first tell him that you are more interested in discussing what we can do about common problems than engaging in ritualistic “exchanges of view”. Explain that this is why you asked Huang Hua to arrange a restricted session. In both personal and national terms, you should project confidence, bearing in mind the extremely cynical view Deng holds of our national will.

He is especially suspicious of liberals who opposed the Vietnam war; he automatically views such people as soft on the Russians. The best approach requires demonstrating a strategic view of the Soviet Union as a serious but manageable threat, weaving together elements ranging from our superior weaponry and strong relations with our allies to our fundamental political and economic strengths and the will of our people. This would be an appropriate time to begin to draw him out on Chinese domestic developments and discuss events in the U.S.

3) Monday Morning Plenary (up to two hours)—Deng will probably invite you to speak first. I suggest you go through a brief (30 minutes including translation) overview of how we see world developments since Deng’s January conversations with the President. Discuss also in strategic terms our interest in broadening and deepening the US–China relationship now that we have virtually completed the process of normalization of both political and economic relations. Leave the bulk of the discussion on Indochina, Pakistan and Korea for the restricted session. Deng will respond; there should be a lively give-and-take.

4) Monday Morning Restricted Session (one hour or more)—The main topic should be Indochina, but this should be introduced as one of several issues about which we share common interests and on which we should therefore be able to work together for mutual benefit. Other issues you may wish to discuss in this session, either because of their sensitivity or because we want to underline their importance by reserving them for restricted discussion include: a) Pakistan; b) Korea; [1½ lines not declassified]; e) Decisions on sensitive export control items not yet processed through the system; f) Any private assurances you may be in a position to give on arms sales to Taiwan in 1980 and beyond.

5) Tuesday Morning (as much time as needed, two hours or more)—We should assume this will be a plenary unless Deng reciprocates, as I [Page 914] believe he will, by asking that part of the meeting be restricted. You should go through the items on the bilateral checklist (attached), presenting them in terms of completing the task of normalizing our economic relations. This is the time to hit hard on the civil aviation issue. If there is a restricted session following, Deng should take the lead.

6) Tuesday Afternoon—Hua Guo Feng (more than two hours, per our suggestion)—Deng will not attend; Huang Hua probably will. We should ask that this session be restricted after about the first fifteen minutes; otherwise it will appear as a courtesy call after your “substantive” sessions with Deng. In addition to delivering the President’s letter, you should be ready to run through the issues discussed with Deng, emphasizing that we are ready to move toward a broader and deeper relationship. It will be interesting to see if Hua acts as a real leader or primarily as a figurehead. You should also ask him about his objective for his forthcoming trip to France, the U.K., and Germany.

Informal Talks—There is a good deal of time in your schedule for one-on-one discussions with Deng driving in from and at the airport, in cars or at dinners. As I calculate it, you will have up to four hours available for such conversations with Deng. These are good occasions to cover sensitive items that did not come up in the restricted session or which require further discussion. Discussion of U.S. domestic events can come up here. You may want to handle the possibility of Secretary Brown’s trip in this way. [1 line not declassified] export controls are also appropriate subjects for these informal talks. You may want to have a short “private” informal talk with Hua at the end of the meeting, if it appears desirable for reasons of balance with your informal time with Deng. If during the meals you wish to move into areas of less immediate importance, Deng enjoys talking about the Long March and other events from the 1930’s. He has had less to say about his difficulties in the 1960’s and 1970’s, but it would be interesting to ask him more about that period, which saw him purged twice.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Trip File, Box 37, Vice President, Far East, 8/24/79–9/3/79: Cables and Memos, 6/22/79–8/24/79. Secret; Sensitive; Nodis.
  2. Someone underlined “avoid playing ‘polar bear’ in our presentations.”
  3. Someone underlined “they are prepared to consider expanding the.”
  4. Someone drew an arrow emphasizing the final two lines of this paragraph.
  5. Someone made a mark in the right margin emphasizing this paragraph.
  6. Between the third and fourth objectives, someone wrote, “Ready to work together.”
  7. See Documents 208 and 211.
  8. The “Checklist of Major Issues” is attached but not printed.
  9. All times are rough estimates based on my previous trips. [Footnote in the original.]