26. Memorandum From Secretary of State Vance to President Carter1


  • Normalization of Relations with the People’s Republic of China

A Study of the Problem

Shortly before the Inauguration I asked a small team of China specialists in the State Department, working with members of the NSC staff, to produce a study on normalization of relations with the PRC. My guidance to them was not to write an options paper or an overview of China’s role in the world, but rather to argue the case for normaliza[Page 77]tion in a relatively short period of time, including full discussion of the problems involved. The team that worked on the question included people who had full access to the NixonKissinger papers (which are being very tightly held) and people who had worked with Kissinger on US-Chinese relations.

The paper they have now produced is attached to this memorandum.2 It addresses the global context of the relationship, reviews the negotiating record, and identifies the important issues which we would face in future negotiations. I recommend it to you as an important background document.

The response to the PRM on China, which will include a general review of our China policy, is now in process.3 But while the PRM proceeds, I thought I would give you my current views on the issue of normalization.

The Taiwan Problem

As the paper makes clear, the only obstacle to normalization is the Taiwan question. The Chinese have said they would not object to continuing private American economic and cultural ties with the island, but as a condition for establishing full diplomatic relations they insist we break diplomatic and all other official ties with Taiwan, including the mutual defense treaty.

The most difficult of these issues is our responsibility toward Taiwan’s security. For a number of years, Peking will not be capable of taking the island by force except at a cost it would probably consider unacceptable both in military terms and in terms of China’s international relations. But PRC military strength will increase over time. We must consider whether American interests will be best served by continuing our formal involvement in the Peking–Taipei problem or whether we should start to disengage, maintaining substantial support for ROC military capabilities at the same time we develop a firmer po[Page 78]litical relationship with Peking which will reduce the PRC’s incentive to attack Taiwan.

The Case for Normalization

The advantages of moving ahead with a serious effort to normalize now include:

—The Soviet factor. Continuing Sino-Soviet rivalry is an important and tangible benefit to the United States strategically. In the past, the PRC and USSR have each been most cooperative with us when we were actively engaged with the other. We cannot automatically assume their continued hostility at present levels and there are limits to what we can do to affect their bilateral relations. However, placing our relations with the PRC on the best possible footing would help position us to deal most effectively with any changes in the Moscow–Peking leg of the triangular relationship.

—The regional factor. Improvement in US–PRC relations has coincided with a significant easing of confrontation in Asia. Normalization would put us in a good position to maintain or improve this situation.

—The Taiwan factor. Despite the new hope which the stagnation in US–PRC relations since 1974 created in Taipei, the ROC leaders and people are still braced for normalization. Assuming we maintained our economic and other crucial relationships (including military sales), they could probably accept the blow with only temporary and minimal set-backs. Moreover, delaying would give the ROC opportunities to attempt spoiling efforts (lobbying with Congress, the Japanese, etc.) and would continue to inhibit any accommodation with Peking, which will be necessary to a long-term peaceful solution.

—The Japan factor. Tokyo moved to full relations with Peking in 1972 following our dramatic reverse in policy. Increasingly, however, the Japanese are beginning to express satisfaction with the status quo and concern over the impact of US–PRC normalization. Prime Minister Fukuda made essentially this pitch to you in March. If the current state of Sino-US relations is unchanged, the pressures from Japan to hold our ground may grow, thus complicating our relations with both Peking and Tokyo.

—The US factor. While the American people overwhelmingly favor continued close ties with Taiwan, they also overwhelmingly favor better relations with the PRC; they do not see the inherent conflict. Thus, although a demonstrable “sell-out” of Taiwan would evoke a serious outcry, failure to move ahead on a reasonable basis would generate pressures from highly vocal elements of the press, academia, and the business world. On the positive side, normalization would enhance trade and cultural exchange prospects. It would also give us a [Page 79] better opportunity to engage the Chinese in a dialogue on global issues, even if their firm positions made early progress unlikely.

The Case for Moving Cautiously

The case for normalization is obviously not one-sided. There are also strong arguments for moving cautiously.

—Despite PRC unhappiness with the lack of forward movement and the US failure to live up to pledges to normalize relations by 1976, the underlying strategic factors which brought us together have not fundamentally changed nor are they likely to do so for the foreseeable future. Perceptions may shift, but the Chinese themselves continue to state that the Soviet question is the major one in our relations and that Taiwan is a secondary matter.

—No matter how braced Taiwan is, normalization, and particularly the termination of our security treaty, would be a psychological blow. There is some risk both on the economic side (e.g. capital flight) and on the political side (e.g. consideration of formalizing an “independent” status for Taiwan—which could force Peking’s hand).

—Even if we normalized, the Taiwan issue would not go away as a problem in our relations with Peking. At some point, PRC tolerance of continuing American involvement on the island might wane. PRC displeasure could be expressed directly in governmental channels, it could take the form of pressure on foreign firms dealing with Taiwan, or it could even find expression in a blockade of the island. Given the fact that we would, through normalization, have recognized only one China whose government resides in Peking, we would have weakened our grounds for any counter-action.

—Peking might well refuse to accept our minimum requirements for normalization (e.g. continued arms sales to Taiwan, contacts which are unofficial in form but governmental in substance, etc.). In those circumstances, the process would probably be stalemated for the remainder of the Administration.

—We could seek to improve the individual aspects of the relationship even in the absence of normalization. The Chinese have made clear that formal agreements on most issues will not be possible in the absence of diplomatic relations. However, improvement could take other forms, including not only trade in high-technology items but also—although at high risk—development of security cooperation as well.

—There is little reason to believe that normalization will reverse Peking’s unwillingness to cooperate on global issues of major concern to us (e.g. food, energy, arms control) or on regional issues such as the search for a permanent Korean settlement.

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My View

The principal condition for good relations with the PRC will be to convince the Chinese that this Administration has a mature and realistic view of the world situation and the strategic balances. We will need to demonstrate our determination to remain strong and to stand up to the Soviets.

The Chinese must also be made to understand that we do not perceive our relations with them as one-dimensional (i.e. vis-a-vis the USSR), but that we also look at our relationship in the context of key bilateral and international issues. I would not expect a positive reaction from the Chinese if we urged that they take a more active part in ongoing negotiations on the international problems, but they should be aware that we intend to engage them on these questions as part of a “normal” relationship.

On normalization itself, I do not believe we should feel so compelled to establish diplomatic relations with Peking that we jeopardize the well-being and security of the people of Taiwan. Neither should we place ourselves under artificial deadlines.

I do believe, however, that in terms of our strategic position normalization is highly desirable. We will be seeking—and presumably reaching—some major agreements with the Soviets. Those are going to intensify our need for offsetting moves with Peking, even though there are no fully comparable steps we can take. The Chinese have already rejected half-way measures such as trade agreements.

Some people have suggested that we look for ways to establish a direct US-Chinese security tie without addressing the normalization issue. This approach can be quite dangerous and going very far down this road would pose real risks. The Chinese might be receptive, but I would be concerned at the Russian—and Japanese—reaction. Nothing would be regarded as more hostile to the Soviet Union than the development of a US-Chinese security arrangement.

Right now the United States has a closer relationship with each Communist superpower than either has with the other. We must continue to maintain that fragile equilibrium recognizing always how dangerous it is, but recognizing also that some other relationship between the three nations could be more dangerous.

In this context, normalization is the best way to move our relations with Peking forward. It would be quite convincing evidence that US-Soviet collaboration is not to be used against China. It would also be the best way to insure maintenance of a favorable Chinese disposition toward our security posture in East Asia and to reduce the degree to which our China policy is hostage to developments in Peking and Taipei over which we have no control. And it would put us in the best [Page 81] position both domestically and internationally to deal with evolutions in Sino-Soviet relations.

As spelled out in the attached paper, our China specialists see no chance that Peking will relent on any of its key “three principles” regarding Taiwan (no US forces, no diplomatic relations, no defense treaty). Although the experts, like most of us, have been wrong in the past, my reading of the record inclines me to agree with them.

This means that Peking will not give us assurances on a peaceful settlement of their differences with Taipei, although they might be willing to say something about “patience” on the issue. In any case, we would want to consider issuing a unilateral statement which could either firmly express our interest in a peaceful settlement or which, as suggested by John Fairbank, could use more rounded language about our commitment to “maintain the stability of the Western Pacific.”

Regardless of what we said publicly, in any negotiations with Peking, we would want to make absolutely clear the seriousness of American concern for peace and stability in Asia and the fact that any attempt to resolve the Taiwan question militarily would have the most serious consequences for US–PRC relations (even leaving open the possibility of direct intervention).

But I am persuaded that the security of Taiwan does not rest primarily on our present treaty assurances. In the long run, the island’s interests—and our own—will be best served by giving Peking a stake in preserving its relationships with the United States, Japan and others, thus reducing the PRC’s incentive to seek military resolution. Normalization would be a significant step in that direction.

To protect Taiwan’s stability in the short run, we must maintain a military supply relationship with Taipei. In addition, continuing government-level ties, however disguised, will be critical to our ability to help sustain Taiwan’s prosperity and stability through trade and investment and cooperation with—and control over—their nuclear power program.

These will not be attractive prospects for Peking. The question is whether the Chinese will decide to live with them or reject them. If they say our terms are unacceptable, we will be faced with an indefinite postponement of diplomatic relations. Even so, we could still try to avert any deterioration in our relationship with Peking, largely by unilateral action. Such moves could not be a substitute for normalization, but they might serve a number of useful purposes vis-a-vis not only the PRC but Taiwan and other audiences as well.

The China PRM will examine what unilateral steps we might take now, during negotiations, or afterwards both to enhance the likelihood of success in normalization negotiations and to position ourselves most advantageously in case we cannot normalize to minimize the risk of de[Page 82]terioration in the relationship. The two areas I have particularly in mind are the lowering of our diplomatic presence in Taipei and further reducing our military contingent on Taiwan.

While domestic political disputes in Peking could harm the climate for negotiations, we do not see that as a factor at this point. There has been far more serious factional fighting in the past than there is currently, and all of the evidence suggests that any present differences are over personal power rather than policy.

Next Steps

In my April 11 meeting with PRC Liaison Office Chief Huang Chen, I said I would like to visit China in August. Huang seemed to welcome this suggestion and gave his preliminary view that Peking would agree.4

I could focus the visit on a review of world issues and confine any normalization discussion to generalities or hearing out the Chinese. But I am convinced, in light of the considerations I have outlined, that we should do more.5

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Far East, Oksenberg Subject File, Box 42, Meetings: 4–5/77. Secret; Nodis. Brzezinski sent the memorandum to Carter under an April 23 covering memorandum on which the President wrote, “Kept enclosure. J.” (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 8, China (People’s Republic of): 3–6/77)
  2. The paper, which is attached but not printed, has five sections addressing the “Normalization of US/PRC Relations”: 1) the costs and benefits of normalization; 2) the background of normalization from 1971 until 1976; 3) the setting for normalization; 4) negotiating history; and 5) negotiating problems. Oksenberg forwarded the paper to Brzezinski under a covering memorandum that stated that it was a “frankly somewhat diffuse and disappointing paper.” Oksenberg recommended that the paper and Vance’s covering memorandum be transmitted to Carter with minimal comment: “Both Mike Armacost and I believe that it would be inappropriate, given the good personal relations we have cultivated with Dick Holbrooke, et al., at State to slap a covering memorandum on this particular set of communications.” (Memorandum from Oksenberg to Brzezinski, April 22; Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 8, China (People’s Republic of): 3–6/77)
  3. PRM 24 is Document 24. Regarding the papers written in response to Parts I and II of PRM 24, see Document 32. The executive summary of the paper produced in response to Part III of PRM 24 is Document 67.
  4. See Document 25.
  5. Another copy of Vance’s memorandum to Carter is followed by Carter’s undated handwritten note to Brzezinski, at the top of which someone wrote: “Appendix to State’s April 15, 1977 paper.” The note reads: “a) This is an excellent paper; b) I’m not in any hurry right now & neither are the Chinese (PRC), apparently; c) Taiwan should be kept strong but non-nuclear; d) Let’s see how the claims negotiations go—as a test of PRC attitude; e) Vance’s visit this fall can help us begin further talks; f) My guess is that for a long time—with arms purchases—Taiwan will be able to withstand any attack; g) Our goal should be that ROC be defensible without our troops; h) Japanese always want best of both worlds; i) Just as PRC have firm basic positions, so should we, & PRC should understand them.” In point g, Carter wrote and struck through “& ROK” after “ROC.” (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Far East, Oksenberg Subject File, Box 55, Policy Process: 10/76–4/77)