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


  • Sino-U.S. Relations: An Appraisal

We are witnessing a slight chilling in Sino-U.S. relations, both intelligence reports and the Chinese Press reveal. The Chinese Press has openly criticized the Carter Administration in terms that it did not use since your visit to China in May, 1978. Covert sources reveal that the Chinese believe that we are simply using our relationship with China to improve our relations with the Soviet Union.

Here are the factors, in my opinion, which are producing the Chinese assessment:

—The U.S. is openly admitting its strategic vulnerability to the Soviet Union in the early 1980s, with the imbalance not to be redressed at the earliest until the mid or late 1980s. China, as an essentially weak country, has sought to attain its security through a balance-of-power strategy which draws on American strength as a counterweight to China’s principal adversary, the Soviet Union. But if the U.S. admits and is prepared to tolerate inadequacies against the Soviets, a balance-of-power strategy may not be available to the Chinese in the early 1980s, in which case its national security can only be attained by reducing the level of its tension with its adversary.

—The weakness of the dollar, the inability of the U.S. to address its energy problems with dispatch, and continued signs that our governmental processes do not function effectively also raise questions about American reliability.

—In our bilateral dealings with the Chinese, we have not meticulously met our commitments to them on severance of our relations with Taiwan, on rapid and effective settlement of the claims/assets agreement which was very much to our advantage, on extension of MFN following the signing of the Trade Agreement, and on expeditious licensing of dual-purpose technology items to the PRC. In all of these areas, the Chinese smell our holding of our relations with them as a hostage to our relations with Moscow. In addition, our handling of the [Page 916] textile issue, which rests on defensible domestic political grounds, nonetheless calls into question our words that a “strong and secure China is in our interest.”

This is not to say that they have behaved meticulously toward us in all areas. They are more obstinate than they need be in the aviation and maritime areas. But in other areas, particularly refugees and their behavior at Geneva, they have behaved in a generally helpful manner, though we would want even more.

It is foolhardy for us to allow a deterioration in the Sino-American relationship, particularly on the eve of PRC-Soviet talks. Several Chinese leaders, particularly Deng Xiaoping, exposed themselves in pursuit of the Sino-American opening. For other reasons, such as their Vietnam Conflict, these people have come under some attack. But we are handing their opponents an additional weapon to club them by not being meticulous in our management of the Sino-American relationship.

The implication of this is obviously to move ahead in the economic relationship and to make it abundantly clear that our relationship with China proceeds independently of our relations with Moscow and that we do not seek to make use of China to advance our interest vis-a-vis Moscow.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 9, China (PRC): 8–9/79. Confidential. Sent for information. At the top of the page, Brzezinski wrote, “I agree—it’s because you were vacationing! ZB.”