272. Memorandum From Secretary of State Vance to President Carter1

I would like to give you my overall perception of where we stand and where we should be going in our relations with China.

Our China policy is one of the important achievements of your Administration. It has been of obvious strategic value. I am, however, seriously concerned that our strategic policies are beginning to show a “tilt” towards China rather than maintaining the essential balance which has characterized US foreign policy for almost a decade. This tilt could become a serious problem.

We have a major interest in pressing forward vigorously with our bilateral relationships with the PRC and in broadening the areas of global cooperation, thus making our relationships with China more truly “normal.” Fritz’s trip last month was a major achievement in this regard.

Furthermore, we also have a major interest in seeing the Soviet Union contained in its efforts to gain strategic advantage in troubled areas of the world, including Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Africa. Therefore, at certain points US and PRC global or strategic interests will be parallel, and we will find ourselves working together closely in the UN or elsewhere in pursuit of common objectives.

But this does not mean we should move into a military security relationship with China, for there is an element of finality in moving towards an alignment with China. Such a policy would suggest that we had given up hope of improving relations with the USSR. To create such an impression would not only increase US-Soviet tension but could precipitate major policy changes by our allies in Europe and Japan.

The triangular policy of balance which best serves our national interests should be based on certain principles:

First, our relations with both Moscow and Peking must remain better than the relationship between them.

Second, while armed conflict between China and the USSR is not in our interest, it would not be to our advantage for the present Sino-Soviet rivalry to end.

Third, our relationship with China, including the possibility of a security relationship, seems to moderate Soviet behavior, but we [Page 987] cannot threaten or enter into a security relationship without sacrificing that leverage.

Fourth, our China policy, while moving China closer to the West, should not preclude or reduce the chances of improved US-Soviet relations.

Judged by the above principles, I believe that our policy has passed the test on two of them. But our policy is in danger of failing the test of the third principle. The fourth, therefore, hangs in the balance, and with it, perhaps, the future course of US-Soviet relations.

We are now engaged in discussions with the Chinese of some extremely sensitive matters which already move us into the front edge of a non-public security relationship with them. The timing and pace of our discussions in these areas is critical, and the public side of this issue must therefore be handled with additional care at this time.

A trip to China by the Secretary of Defense must be part of such a careful and measured process. In my view, it should come next year, after Premier Hua’s trip here, and after thorough preparatory groundwork in terms of public perceptions, allied consultations, and foreshadowing with the Soviets.

At the right time, discussions between Harold and his counterparts in China would be an appropriate step in our relations. I know that he would skillfully try to minimize risks by careful attention to detail if he went in the next few weeks, but the reality is that the trip itself at this time would generate new momentum and stimulate public debate over a military security relationship with China.

The present international circumstances lead me to recommend delay for the following reasons:

—It comes too soon after the Vice President’s trip, with no significant PRC visit to the US as part of the mix: we would appear to be rushing to Peking again, much in the style of the NixonKissinger years, without their coming to us either on substantive issues or in symbolic terms.

—Coming shortly before the dry season offensive in Cambodia and possible PRC counter moves against Vietnam, it may be read by some as an encouragement of Chinese action against Hanoi. We should maintain our careful stance on this issue.

—By engaging in intense consultations, we could probably explain to our allies why we were sending Harold to China at this time. But no matter how much groundwork was done, they would still be likely to conclude it was a precipitous decision related to the Cuban issue and wonder, particularly in Western Europe, what such a trip portends for US relations with the Soviet Union at a time when SALT hangs in the balance.

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—The same point would hold true for public and Congressional consultations as well.

—A trip at this time may reinforce the growing Soviet fear that we have decided to form a de facto alliance against the USSR. If they reach that conclusion, it will not induce the Russians to act with moderation and responsibility on Cuba and will make it more difficult to resolve that issue.

—Finally, I am concerned that the Chinese themselves will read into the trip at this time a decision that we are ready to move into a military-security relationship.

As for our diplomacy on the Soviet brigade in Cuba, I do not see this as an appropriate or effective response. Should the time come when we are unable to resolve the problem by negotiations, we will need to act in ways related to Cuba, such as increased SR–71 flights, possibly reinforcing the garrison in Guantanamo, and increasing the number of naval and air patrols. If Moscow reaches the conclusion that we are moving into a security relationship with Peking—a conclusion they could be moved towards by a trip by Harold at this time—it will make it more difficult to resolve the Cuban issue.

I am not suggesting that we should fail to try to take advantage of our relationship with China to induce moderation in Soviet behavior. Rather, I am concerned that to carry such a policy to the point of entering into a military-security relationship with China could lose us the leverage the China factor now gives us. The China card, once played, loses its inhibiting effect.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Far East, Oksenberg Subject File, Box 25, Brown (Harold) 1/80 Trip: 8–9/79. Top Secret; Eyes Only.