297. Memorandum From Secretary of State Vance to President Carter1


  • The Sino-American Relationship: Leonard Woodcock’s Views

Since Harold Brown’s trip we have had a continuing discussion among the Department and our leading Ambassadors in East Asia about Chinese policy. In recent weeks the Chinese have shown a definite trend towards greater involvement in a more or less traditional manner in the field of multilateral diplomacy. Our dialogue with them on a wide range of issues has become deeper and more substantive, especially during Harold’s trip. And we see the possibility of productive follow-up discussions in the near future on Afghanistan. I have proposed to the Chinese that these begin in Washington next month.

In analyzing these events, Leonard Woodcock has sent in a particularly thoughtful and important cable,2 stressing not only the opportunities inherent in the new relationship, but also pointing out its limitations. The following is the gist of his message:

“. . . We would give greater weight to the continuing differences in approach between us and Beijing to issues such as Korea and Southwest Asia. In doing so, we have no intention of minimizing the marked improvements in tone and substance in our dialogue with the Chinese that have occurred over the last two years, and especially since normalization. These points deserve emphasis in dealing with those still skeptical of the extent of the changes that have occurred in Sino-U.S. relations and in the general Chinese diplomatic outlook in recent years. But in general, we feel the greater danger at the moment is not that we will overlook the emerging coincidental similarity of our respective foreign policy interests, but rather that in seeking to emphasize the positive in our relations with Beijing, we may arouse greater expectations than the actual relationship can bear.

“In particular, we should guard against paying too little attention to the contradictions that Beijing’s pursuit of closer relations with the West and adoption of a more traditional diplomatic style have introduced into its domestic and foreign policies. These contradictions make [Page 1087] the PRC uncomfortable in seeming to embrace too warmly a country such as the United States, which is still viewed by much of the Third World as an imperialistic superpower and whose relations with some of Beijing’s closest traditional friends (e.g. North Korea and Pakistan) leave much to be desired. Even as Beijing’s relationship with the U.S. has become closer and warmer it has still not fully abandoned the ideological baggage of its three world doctrine in which China’s natural allies are seen as the Third World.

“Overidentification with the U.S. thus conflicts with Beijing’s Third World diplomacy, especially in the Arab world, where Beijing’s determination to keep lines open to the radical Arab states causes it to downplay its rather nervous private support for what it views as Egypt’s risky strategy of pursuing a separate peace with Israel. This introduces a degree of tension between the PRC’s pragmatically perceived foreign policy interests and its ideological conception of China’s proper place in the international scheme of things. We know that the ideological questions are also issues in internal debates and factional disputes among the leadership.

“Finally, in assessing these straws in the wind, we would come to a somewhat differently worded conclusion, which may partly be a question of semantics. On a variety of issues ranging from the hostages in Iran to Chinese actions with Egypt and ASEAN, the Chinese are indeed acting in ways that are supportive to our efforts. But this parallelism reflects Beijing’s own self-interest, and as our differences over the application of sanctions to Iran demonstrated, there are limits on what Beijing is prepared to do. This may be particularly true at a time when Beijing is still assessing the results of the Brown visit. No matter how this assessment comes out, we doubt that the PRC would be willing to lose its freedom of action or be seen too openly as ‘working to support us.’ It much prefers the role of acting independently, although it expects appropriate credit when this reinforces our own efforts. Even when it is supporting us, it normally prefers to do so in ways that do not draw excessive attention to this fact. We would stress this point, since it is central to our ability to work effectively with the Chinese on behalf of common goals, and in areas such as the Middle East where our goals overlap but do not coincide.”

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 9, China (PRC): 10/79–2/80. Secret. At the top of the page, Carter wrote, “Good assessment. C.”
  2. Telegram 779 from Beijing, January 28, 0906Z. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800048–1042)