282. Memorandum From Secretary of State Vance to President Carter1

This paper deals with certain issues that have to be resolved in connection with Harold Brown’s trip to China. A second paper will provide a broader review and analysis of our relationship with China and convey my concern about a growing tilt on our part.2

Decisions made in connection with Harold Brown’s forthcoming trip to China will affect our long-term relationship with Beijing, as well as with our European and Asian allies and with the Soviet Union. The most important of these are (a) US export control policies toward China, especially our handling of dual-use technology, and our approach to implementing our commitment to treat China differently from the Soviet Union in COCOM; (b) whether we wish to sell China equipment which would enable it to conduct its nuclear test program underground; and (c) what public symbolism we wish to impart to Harold’s trip.

Our new relationship with China consolidated an essential element in the global balance of power, and significantly enhanced our national security. It opened the prospect of cooperation with a quarter of mankind, without whose active contributions no global issue of significance (e.g., energy and natural resource management, food, environment, or nuclear nonproliferation) can be satisfactorily addressed. The continued development of relations in the 1980s with China should remain a central goal of our foreign policy, especially in those areas which threaten no one, advance our commercial and other interests, and lead to a better quality of life for Americans, Chinese, and other peoples of the world. We need to distinguish clearly between these areas in which our relationships with China should be pursued on their own merits and those where they must take into account the likely reaction of our allies, third countries, or the Soviet Union.

China has great utility to us in strategic terms because it is a powerful country on the Soviet border with which our military ties are only potential, and the likelihood that we might develop such ties remains ambiguous. It is not in our interest to dispel this ambiguity, either by ruling out all possibility of more active cooperation with China, or by implying that we intend to join the PRC in a de facto anti-Soviet alli[Page 1016]ance. The implicit security aspects of our relationship with China (with its unspoken threat of greater development) has been an important factor in deterring Soviet adventurism. But developing it is less likely to produce moderation in Soviet behavior than strategic claustrophobia and irrationality. Our allies understand this well.

I am not advocating a policy of mechanistic “evenhandedness” toward China and the Soviet Union. The obvious differences between the two, in strength, behavior and threat to the US, are too great for any such approach to be sustainable over the long term. China differs fundamentally from the Soviet Union: it is economically underdeveloped; technologically and militarily backward; a regional, not a world power; not now a direct threat to our security or that of any of our allies; and just beginning to structure its relationship with us. Some aspects of our relationship with China resemble North-South more than East-West relations. These differences are important, and our policy must take account of them. But we must also take full account of the way in which others assess what we are doing with Beijing. I do believe we must treat China and the Soviet Union in a balanced manner and this must be the perception we convey to the world.

This is why I believe we should move very carefully, in our export control policy toward China. We should clearly rule out export of any items destined for military end-use. We should export dual-use equipment and technology only if we have adequate reason to believe diversion to military purposes is unlikely. We should also review such transfers on a case-by-case basis in order to assess their international political impact.

Similarly, in COCOM, I think we should proceed carefully and gradually in implementing Fritz’s August commitment to Deng. Decisions that we have already made on certain high technology exports to China, and increasing pressure from our allies, argue for some alteration in COCOM’s procedures in order to maintain its viability. Our final decisions on this matter should be deferred until after Congress passes the Trade Agreement with MFN, which is Beijing’s highest priority at this time. I anticipate that this will take place in late January or early February. If we make any change in our export control policies prior to that date, we will be required by Congress to discuss it with them in advance, and this will seriously complicate passage of the Agreement. We have already discussed this matter with the two Congressional committees which sought hearings on export controls this month; they have agreed to a delay on the understanding that no decisions will be made before consultations with them next year.

We should continue intensive internal examination of this issue at the staff level. Specifically, I believe that after Harold’s trip we should consider a procedure for China along the lines of the Belgian proposal, [Page 1017] under which exceptions could be approved on the basis of “the current situation in China.” This avoids a cumbersome “China list,” retains a careful case-by-case review of sales to China, and can be accomplished informally. I do not believe that COCOM should authorize exports of equipment or technology for military end-use or even for civilian end-use where diversion might threaten international stability.

I believe that the proposed sale of equipment and technology to help the Chinese nuclear testing program go underground is not in our interests.

It could only be viewed by the Soviet Union, the Indians, and others as the beginnings of a nuclear relationship with China, with all that implies. It would be inconsistent with our efforts to negotiate a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Over time, the Chinese will come under increasing diplomatic and world pressures to halt atmospheric testing and move underground and may find it in their interest to do so, particularly in light of the new worldwide role they want to play. This is what happened in the case of the French. This is the development we should further.

Since the planning for the trip is entering the final stages, I believe that it would be extremely useful for you to meet with the Vice President, Harold, Zbig, and me so that we can discuss the sensitive and important decisions that you will be making on the matters described above.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Office, Outside the System File, Box 55, Chron: 12/11–20/79. Top Secret.
  2. This paper was not found.