271. Memorandum From Secretary of Defense Brown to President Carter1


  • Trip to China

The time has come to develop a strategic dialogue and military contacts with China to parallel arrangements we have with the USSR. A visit to Beijing during my trip to Korea and Japan next month would provide a timely opportunity to initiate the process. Fritz Mondale’s discussions with Deng and Hua Guofeng indicate that the Chinese welcome my visit. Our current difficulties with the USSR (over the brigade in Cuba) and with the Congress (on SALT ratification) enhance the utility of an early trip.

I would envisage a relatively brief stopover in Beijing—2–3 days—for talks with PRC leaders. I would not expect to engage in the kind of global tour d’horizon of shared political and security concerns which characterized earlier conversations with PRC leaders. Rather, I believe my substantive exchanges with them should concentrate on the global military balance with emphasis on 1) trends in the Soviet defense buildup, 2) the inherent strengths (as well as some vulnerabilities) in the US military posture, 3) the appropriate size and characteristics of China’s military capabilities, and 4) arms control issues of mutual interest (to emphasize this latter aspect I suggest having George Seignious accompany me). While I would also hope to see a bit of China, I would certainly avoid visiting any particularly sensitive geographical areas or military installations.

The principal purpose of such a trip would be further to broaden and deepen our bilateral relationship with China. Our relationship with Moscow has long contained a security component (i.e., arms control negotiations), and there have been occasional military-to-military contacts. During my discussions with Defense Minister Ustinov in Vienna, I invited him to visit the US. He said this was not the time to discuss such a visit. With the full normalization of our ties with Beijing, comparable arrangements with China are now appropriate.

Beyond this, however, I believe a trip at this time would help us with the Soviets although they will doubtless express discomfort. Indeed I believe it will help us because they will probably feel some dis [Page 985] comfort, or at least apprehension. The inference that Sino-US ties could take on more concrete security overtones in the future should provide the Soviets a powerful inducement for greater restraint and sensitivity to US interests. This lever is one of the few we have; it is perhaps the only one which the Soviets will immediately take seriously. And it would vividly demonstrate that failure to take our interests into account in areas of special geographic and historical sensitivity (e.g., Caribbean) can precipitate disquieting US actions toward their own neighbors.

To be sure our relations with neither China nor the USSR would be advanced if my trip appeared hastily contrived for tactical advantage. But that is neither the fact nor our purpose. The trip was conceived, discussed and broached with the Chinese before the issue of the Soviet brigade in Cuba surfaced as a serious problem. Obviously we should emphasize that in any public statements about the trip’s origins and objectives. At the same time we cannot afford to allow the current state-of-play in US-Soviet relations to obstruct policy moves vis-a-vis Beijing which make sense on their merits—as I believe this does. If we fail to follow up promptly on their positive response to the Vice President’s soundings, the Chinese will very probably conclude that our concern about negative Soviet reactions is the reason. This and other similar signs of US timidity could well influence the manner in which the PRC plays the US/USSR/PRC triangular relationship.

In the light of these considerations, I believe we should immediately accept the Chinese invitation, and consult with them with a view to announcing sometime this week dates for a mid-October visit to China. That would permit time for orderly planning, allow for sufficient advance notice to key allies, avoid any connection with a possible “second lesson” China may contemplate administering to Vietnam, and enable the visit to be added to my previously scheduled trip to the region.

Harold Brown
  1. Source: Carter Library, Brzezinski Donated Material, Geographic File, Box 9, China (People’s Republic of), Alpha Channel: 12/78–1/80. Secret; Sensitive.