283. Memorandum From Secretary of Defense Brown to President Carter1


  • U.S. Policy Toward China

I have read Cy’s memorandum to you concerning my trip to China.2 While I concur with several of his specific recommendations, [Page 1018] there are other points on which we differ, and I believe that it will be important to resolve these matters prior to my departure.

Our new relationship with China contributes favorably from our point of view to the global balance of power. The further development of this relationship in the 1980s will contribute to the security as well as the prosperity of both the United States and China. I agree that the development of security cooperation with Beijing must be managed with great care, taking fully into account allied and Soviet reactions. I also agree that the ambiguity that marks our strategic relationship can serve American interests.

I believe, however, that we can best exploit that ambiguity by approaching security cooperation with China in a more open-ended fashion. Some types of cooperation—e.g., reciprocal exchanges of visits by military personnel—are simply by-products of a normal political relationship. The Soviet Union has no reasonable grounds for objecting to such exchanges. The real issue is more sensitive forms of security cooperation that would imply a closer and more purposive alignment (to take an extreme example, arms sales). Clearly we wish to move very cautiously in this field. But with respect to these more far-reaching steps, I believe our interest will best be served not by ruling them out unequivocally as a matter of principle or even of policy. Rather our objective should be to reinforce the impression to the Soviets that however little or modest we have undertaken with the Chinese to which they could object or honestly fear, we could do much more. We want to make clear that Soviet conduct will affect decisively the future pace and contours of Sino-U.S. security cooperation. On the one hand we must avoid gratuitously provoking the Soviet Union and alarming our allies. But it is equally important that the Soviets understand that if they engage in aggressive or expansionist actions which challenge the shared security concerns of the United States and China, Washington and Beijing may respond with cooperation in the field of defense as well as diplomacy. To make that point effectively to the Soviets, in addition to what we say along these lines, it is necessary to have some very limited cooperative activities underway to underscore the future potential—not least by dramatizing the contrast between what we are doing and what we could do if the Soviets force us to it.

While Cy eschews a policy of “mechanistic even-handedness” toward China and the Soviet Union, he urges “balanced” treatment of both major communist powers. In deciding what is “balance,” however, we must recognize that the USSR and China pose different problems for us and offer us different opportunities. The Soviets constitute our principal strategic challenge. They pile up military capabilities far beyond their defensive requirements; they threaten the security and even existence of free societies and values; and they display a con[Page 1019]sistent predisposition to opportunism in third world disputes. Perhaps, given the strength, the Chinese would like to do the same. But the Chinese are, on the other hand, by comparison a weak power, and their strategic interests are largely convergent with our own. In promoting a policy of balance, our objective vis-a-vis the Soviets is to constrain their growing power. In pursuit of that aim we have acknowledged our stake in a strong, secure, and friendly China. We also have an interest in avoiding gratuitous provocation of the USSR—and avoiding being manipulated by China.

These considerations should shape our approach to specific issues:

Export controls and technology transfers. I would certainly foreswear arms sales to China at this time, and the same applies generally to military end-use technology. I see no reason, however, why our declaratory policy should flatly rule out such sales under all circumstances in the future. Rather our position should be that we do not now choose to do this. (If at all possible, we should persuade the Chinese to act in ways that will permit us honestly to say we have not received any requests for sales of arms per se.)

As for dual-use equipment and technology, I agree that we should preserve a case-by-case approach. But I think that we should evaluate specific requests not only in terms of the possibility that such technology might be diverted to military purposes, but also consider the possible consequences of such diversion for U.S. interests. It should not be our policy that we will sell to China only if we would make an identical sale to the USSR. In short, I believe some differentiation in the technology we transfer to China on the one hand and the Soviet Union on the other is justified not only because China is less capable of exploiting military applications, but because, even if diverted, some types of dual-use technology are less likely to be placed in the service of aims which are hostile to our own.

COCOM. I agree with Cy that we should defer any effort to consult with the COCOM countries on this question until Congress completes ratification of the U.S.–China trade agreement. I am also inclined to believe that the so-called Belgian proposal offers the most promising method of increasing our flexibility vis-a-vis technology transfers to China without eroding our capacity to control exports to the Soviet Union.

Assistance for China’s nuclear test program. Some acceleration in China’s movement of its nuclear testing program underground would be advantageous to the U.S. and its allies, and the Chinese have raised the question of U.S. help with drilling and diagnostic techniques. However, I believe we should proceed very cautiously in this area, not least because China’s motives are unlikely to be limited to learning how to avoid the environmental costs of atmospheric testing. I share Cy’s res[Page 1020]ervations concerning the wisdom of selling equipment and technology to the Chinese to help them move their test program underground. I would not oppose helping them with diagnostic methods—classified or not. If the provision of unclassified information concerning drilling techniques for underground tests would facilitate an earlier cessation of atmospheric testing, I would be prepared to support that. (There is no particular reason the drilling equipment need be U.S.—we use Australian-built drills.) Because of the sensitivity of this area, such cooperation should be undertaken in public and involve no government-to-government collaboration susceptible to misinterpretation by the Soviets, American allies, or various potential “proliferators.”

Harold Brown
  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Office, Outside the System File, Box 55, Chron: 12/11–20/79. Top Secret; Via Alpha Channel. A copy was sent to Vance.
  2. See Document 282.