30. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski) to President Carter1


  • Chinese “Flexibility”

You may recall writing the following remarks on Vance’s memorandum on the claims-assets issue: “We should assess what, if anything, China has done in the last ten years that was flexible or constructive.”2 This memorandum offers such an assessment.

It would be foolish, of course, to portray the Chinese as highly flexible. They are still revolutionaries strongly committed to ideological principles; it will take years before the leaders entirely lose their allegiance to Maoist doctrine and exhibit pragmatism as we understand the term. In addition, apparent inflexibility is a bargaining strategy of theirs. That is part of their style.

Even so, if flexibility entails an ability to learn and change, the Chinese pass the test. Within a relative short period of ten years, their approach to the Asian region has altered dramatically. Ten years ago, they advocated and supported violent change throughout the region. Today, they place primary emphasis upon state-to-state relations and are a major force for stability. Without this change in their policy, we could not be carrying out our force reductions in the Western Pacific.

Ten years ago, they reviled the Japanese-American Defense Treaty and encouraged their Japanese admirers continually to demonstrate against it. Today, they accept the Treaty and encourage their Japanese friends to support a good relationship with the U.S. Ten years ago, they supported, albeit modestly, subversive anti-American movements in Africa and Asia (e.g., Congo, Somaliland, Zanzibar, Southern Yemen, and Indonesia), but today they more frequently are aligned with the side which we also back. Ten years ago, given the intensity of their “anti-imperialist” rhetoric, no one would have forecast Mao would welcome two American Presidents to Peking, before the U.S. recognized the PRC as the legitimate government of China. Against domestic opposition, Mao prevailed and thereby damaged his revolutionary credentials. Ten years ago the Chinese adamantly pursued an economic development strategy of self-reliance, but today the Chinese [Page 92] are beginning to accept foreign credits and import foreign technology in large amounts. In sum, the Chinese have demonstrated flexibility in the sense of departing from their revolutionary rhetoric to meet some of their security and developmental needs.

If flexibility means a willingness to compromise, they have exhibited that capacity too. The establishment of a Liaison Office in Washington even while the Republic of China (Taiwan) Embassy remained was a major departure from 25 years of diplomatic practice. Chinese rhetoric on the Taiwan issue until 1973–1974 also demonstrated flexibility: expressions of patience and of hope for peaceful resolution of the issue. (Since then, their rhetoric has been less accommodating.) Most importantly, their behavior in the Taiwan Strait for the past decade has been marked by restraint and patience.

Finally, if flexibility means agility in playing balance-of-power politics, they have demonstrated their talents both in the Vietnam War—where they ultimately played a constructive role in helping to bring an end to the hostilities—and in Korea, where they play a restraining role on Kim Il-sung.

Some additional comments are in order. Undoubtedly dealing with the Chinese will be exasperating. We’re dealing with very proud people, bearers of an ancient, distinctive culture, who believe that the West humiliated them for over a century. This makes them suspicious, tough, and quick to take insult. One of our great challenges, however, is to draw them out of their isolation and to search for ways to deal with them as equals, something never done before in man’s history.

In the past, either the Chinese were on top or the West dictated the terms of interaction.

Further, their inflexibility to some extent just has to be tolerated. We have to cultivate this crotchety old fourth of mankind, in part because of what they are doing for us strategically: tying down a fourth of our main adversary’s military effort.

And finally, we have to take the long view. In the late 1940s and 1950s, the Soviets were probably more inflexible and less constructive than the Chinese are today. But one reason we are able to make even a modicum of progress with the USSR now is our persistence from an early date in trying to engage them in talks, in the face of enormous frustration.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Far East, Oksenberg Subject File, Box 55, Policy Process: 6/77. Top Secret. Sent for information. At the top of the page, Carter wrote, “Zbig—Very good for me. J.”
  2. See Document 29 and footnote 6 thereto.