327. Memorandum From Michel Oksenberg to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1


  • China Policy Since Mid-1978

This memorandum continues the narrative of my August 23, 1978 memorandum (Tab A).2

Stages of China Policy from Mid-1978

The Drive to Normalization (June 1978–December 15, 1978). The aftermath of your May trip culminated in Leonard Woodcock’s negotiations in Beijing. Leonard and his Chinese interlocutors held six sessions in Beijing: July 5; July 14; August 11; September 15; October 3; No [Page 1151] vember 2; and December 4.3 The President’s brilliant meeting with Chai of September 19, 1978, accelerated the process.4 Our underlying negotiating strategy was set in a meeting you and Cy had with the President on June 20.5 At that time, the President set December 15 as his target for normalization. And the State memo to the President states normalization proceed in tandem with the SALT talks, because normalization would make SALT politically more acceptable on the Hill. (This is worth remembering, since you are accused of having pursued normalization as a way of derailing SALT.)

We slowly unfolded our position, testing the Chinese reaction on each sensitive issue before moving to the next issue. The essence of our negotiating strategy was to table our position when we were fairly certain the Chinese would not say “no”. To have elicited a rebuff at any point would have postponed normalization for years, since there was no fallback to our position. Having already accepted China’s so-called “three demands”, we were responding with our minimum position on our “three demands” 1) that the Chinese not contradict our unilateral statements at the time of normalization concerning the peaceful future of Taiwan; 2) that we would retain a full range of economic, cultural, and other relations with Taiwan on an unofficial basis; and 3) that we would continue to sell arms to Taiwan.

To place the talks in an appropriate strategic context, you held frequent talks with Han Xu and Chai Zemin, who arrived on the scene in August. The memcons of these conversations, which are in your files, reveal a candid exchange of views on all issues of the day: Iran, the Mideast, and SALT. The Chinese began to respond, with reports on Huang Hua’s trip to Africa and Hua Guofeng’s to Romania, Yugoslavia, and Iran. These conversations helped convey the sense to Deng on the Chinese side and to Carter through your reports on each of these meetings that normalization would lead to significantly increased strategic cooperation between us. That awareness, I am convinced, greatly eased Chinese concerns over the Taiwan issue.

Meanwhile, Dick Holbrooke opened his own, very useful channel with Han Xu over the unpleasant aspects of our relations. Chinese complaints about our arms sales to Taiwan were delivered through that channel, and were excluded from the WoodcockHuang Hua or Brzezinski–Chai meetings.

Bureaucratically, you did three things to ensure the normalization talks took place in a stable and propitious environment:

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—You helped keep the President fully on board. Perhaps I was overly nervous because of the neutron bomb fiasco,6 but I was concerned that the President might back off at the last moment or depart from the subtleties to which he had agreed in June. For that reason, I showered you with memos and negotiating texts from you to the President, and you supplied them all to him. As a result, he became fully engaged in the issue, even as he was burdened with SALT, Mideast, and Iran. To ensure that he would remain on board, after a bad VanceHuang Hua meeting in New York on October 3,7 you arranged for a meeting of the President with just you and Ambassador Woodcock on October 11, at which final details were nailed down. It was at that meeting the President specified, in response to Woodcock’s recommendation, that we would not move on normalization with Vietnam until normalization with China had been completed. Your notes from that pivotal meeting are also in the files.8

—You were the enforcer of secrecy on the President’s behalf. The President, at that point stung by State leaks on the Iranian situation, was adamant that the circle be kept very small, with his personal approval of each addition. While creating no small amount of animosity toward us, the NSC fulfilled its obligation. On three occasions, the Chinese leaked at the highest levels, and we even had to protest to them that we were tighter than they.

—You kept the Vietnam business under control. The files show Holbrooke providing the Vietnamese opportunities to demonstrate their flexibility and readiness to move forward from July on, and our task was to restrain him, undermine him, and eventually cut him off at the pass. Our view was clear. We did not know if normalization would succeed. And the most foolish position we could have found ourselves in was to have normalized with Vietnam as Hanoi turned to the Soviet Union (an obviously increasing dependency) while at the same time not having normalized with China.

The six Woodcock negotiating rounds were the product of excellent cooperation among the participants: the President, Vance, Woodcock, you, with Holbrooke, Oksenberg, Hansell as staffers, and Mondale, Brown, and Jordan as knowledgeable supporters. On only one issue can it be said the NSC clearly pushed the negotiation process for [Page 1153] ward: the tabling of the draft Joint Communique in November.9 Up to that time, the Chinese had just listened to our presentation and expressed skepticism of our seriousness, as we had not addressed the actual modalities of normalization. We decided the time had come to start negotiating over a tangible document. Cy was reluctant. The October 11 Carter–Woodcock meeting nailed down the tactic. You favored putting a January 15 date on the Communique as the way of communicating the seriousness of our intent. Cy favored no date. The President, now totally prepared to move forward, advanced your January 15 suggestion to January 1.

It is important to note that Holbrooke assumed responsibility for developing the Congressional consultation strategy for normalization and Vance, through consultations with Brownell, developed the tactics for how to terminate the defense treaty.

With Woodcock’s sixth presentation of December 4, the US had completed outlining our position, and we awaited a Chinese response. This is the crucial moment at which you intervened so decisively. After a hectic and hilarious few days when Denis Clift—not knowing of the negotiations—scheduled a VP–Chai meeting, thereby confusing the Chinese and probably delaying the Woodcock–Deng meeting, we learned a Deng–Woodcock meeting was scheduled.

The Mondale–Chai meeting had been cancelled, and on December 11, in anticipation of the momentous Woodcock–Deng meeting, you saw Chai.10 In that meeting, you foreshadowed Woodcock’s presentation, indicated what kind of response we hoped to elicit from Deng, and discussed the excellent prospects on SALT and a Carter–Brezhnev summit. You then extended an invitation to Deng to visit the US in January and suggested Blumenthal would like to visit China early in the year.

Deng had received the memcon of your meeting with Chai before he saw Woodcock, and was primed. The meeting went, as you recall, extremely well. The Woodcock cable awaited you on the morning of the 13th, and you went over it with the President. I hope you recall that meeting well.11 I, of course, was in a frenetic state here waiting for the cable, but you kept it until about 10:30 A.M., when I called to say we hadn’t heard from Woodcock yet. You asked me to come to your office, and you told me we were normalizing on Friday night.12 I thought you were kidding. You then showed me the cable and instructed me to prepare several items—one copy only—which we then went over with the [Page 1154] President that evening. The activities of the next two days in terms of negotiating with the Chinese are well recorded—your session with Chai on arms sales, more sessions on arms sales, hammering out the Joint Communiqué, etc. What went on in the White House I do not know, how Vance was informed, what Moore, etc. were doing. I do remember one very important point, however. I asked about legislative consultations. You told me Byrd had been informed of the negotiations some time back, and had counseled against informing the Hill until the very last minute. To reconstruct the activities of the 14th and 15th, therefore, you will have to consult Schechter, Albright, and others in the White House.

The Deng Visit and the Early Days (January 1979). The next month was frenzied. State handled the severance of diplomatic relations with Taiwan, including the rocky Christopher mission, the preparation of the Taiwan Omnibus Legislation, and the issue of disposition of ROC diplomatic properties. Normalization had come with such suddenness and the circle had been kept so tight that State was really unprepared for the issues cascading upon them and for the workload they had to carry. Some of our subsequent problems, such as in the Taiwan Relations Act, can be attributed to the lack of planning, but under the circumstances, State did very well. The principal burden fell to Roger Sullivan.

Meanwhile, the White House—especially Ann Wexler—assumed control of the Deng visit. Your effort centered on the talks themselves, and you developed the basic concept of the visit. Ann put the pieces together. No doubt, you recall the dinner at your house and the three Deng–Carter meetings.13 The highpoint was the session that turned to bilateral issues. The agenda for our coming two years was set there: claims-assets settlement, trade agreement, MFN, textile, aviation, maritime, cultural agreements. The NSC negotiated the joint press statement at the end of Deng’s visit, where we equated the concepts of “hegemony” and “domination”.14 And you arranged for a briefing in my office on the global strategic situation, where you planted some ideas that matured months later.

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Your speech on China policy, delivered simultaneously with one by Vance, established the context for our China policy.15

Establishing the Framework for an Extensive Relationship (February–August 1979). The next months saw a proliferation of science and technology agreements under Frank Press’ direction, the development of an economic relationship under Mike Blumenthal’s encouragement (Mike was way ahead of his recalcitrant department), and the fostering of cultural ties under ICA.

You diminished your overall involvement in China policy, but selectively intervened to keep the ball moving. You established structures within the US Government (PRC Committee on S&T, Committee on Economics, Subcommittee on Culture—the latter never got off the ground) to sustain the momentum, and you actively engaged others (Mondale, Blumenthal, Press, Kreps, Strauss, Brown, Schlesinger) so that the policy was broad-based within the Administration. The bureaucratic ploys we used were to schedule trips which in themselves gave the new relationship momentum (i.e., a “trip-driven” diplomacy), and to involve every major bureaucracy in the US Government in constructive activities with the PRC.

Nonetheless, your intervention was necessary at these junctures:

—To respond to the Chinese incursion into Vietnam in a calm manner. Vance wanted the Blumenthal trip postponed over this, but you recommended the trip go forward. The President supported your position. The President’s comments at the NSC meeting discussing the Chinese incursion reveal his understanding that the Vietnamese occupation of Kampuchea and the Soviet backing of Vietnam were the causes of the Chinese action.16

—To sign the trade agreement and then to push for MFN for China. This was a protracted struggle, facilitated by the Cuba brigade affair. Vance and State procrastinated, even though we were committed to move ahead on MFN for China as the quid for Deng’s settling the claims-assets issue on very unfavorable and slightly humiliating terms to them. It finally took Mondale and your going to Byrd on MFN, after Vance had steered Byrd in different directions.

—To schedule the Vice President’s trip and to plan its scope. David Aaron, of course, played a crucial role here. The Vice President’s mem [Page 1156] orable speech at Beijing University17 was an NSCVP product by default, however, since Holbrooke chose not to involve himself in the drafting process. Mondale planned for his trip meticulously. He went to Cy’s office to plead for a State declaration that China was a friendly country not dominated by international Communism, for purposes of US extension of reimbursable aid. Cy’s comment, Mondale said, was, “I’ll hold my nose and do it”. This trip, of course, completed the normalization process, with several loose ends tied up in 1980.

—To steer the relationship in a security direction. This began with the President’s May 3, 1979 meeting with Chai, at the end of which the President met privately with Chai.18 You picked up the theme of this meeting in subsequent meetings with Chai and Tsao prior to the Mondale visit. Arms sales and ship visits, among other topics, began to be addressed. You then made sure a Brown trip was an item on Mondale’s agenda.

—To prevent untimely US involvement in seeking an international settlement to the Kampuchean situation, you had to be vigilant in monitoring State speeches and cables. The NSC view to let ASEAN take the lead prevailed. Our position was not based on a desire to please the Chinese but on our assessment of Vietnam’s posture and on the low priority we attached to the region at that time. We just could not take on another major diplomatic initiative, with the resources that would be required to follow through.

With these as your initiatives, State handled the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act, the establishment and staffing of the American Institute on Taiwan, the development of protocol in dealing with Taiwan, and the handling of the diplomatic properties issue. The White House injunction was to abide by the normalization agreement and emulate the Japanese model as closely as possible. This, by the way, is what the Japanese hoped we would do. Several arms sales to Taiwan which had been pledged in 1978 were completed.

State and Holbrooke deserve credit for handling the Indochina refugee situation in a humane fashion.

Lest one became mired in detail, the key development during this period was the move away from our stated posture of “even-handedness” to the position of “balance” and then its abandonment on Vice President Mondale’s trip. And your role in this was obviously critical. V-B-B meetings over technology transfer, as well as over MFN, were the forum and issues which brought this major change in policy about.

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Developing a Military Relationship (September 1979–Present). The cutting edge issue following the Mondale visit was the development of a military relationship which brought the Pentagon [less than 1 line not declassified] into the fold. Even prior to Brown’s trip, events unfolded which you, David, and I supervised and negotiated. But setting the date for Brown’s trip necessitated a scolding letter from the President to Vance reminding him the issue had been settled.19 Whatever uncertainty may have existed was dispelled, however, by Afghanistan, and Brown left for China authorized to indicate a change in US policy toward non-weaponry military equipment sales to China.

Roger knows what role you subsequently played in the Geng Biao and Perry trips, as well as in specific licensing decisions.

Turning to the economic side, I am under the impression, State was resisting Chinese accession to membership in IMF and World Bank, and through the PRC Subcommittee on Economic Relations with the PRC, the NSC moved things forward. But, I do think you should have been more active, so that Ex-Im funding for credit to China would be further along at this point.

1980 will long be seen as a honeymoon year in Sino-American relations. Our consultations improved to the extent they were better in tone and substance than our dialogue with the Europeans. Where Chinese support was cheap—rhetoric, Olympic boycott—they backed us, but they also undertook risks for the new relationship as well. As the quality of the consultations improved, you continued to take part, but as befits a “normal” relationship, increasingly the consultations [less than 1 line not declassified] took place at State.

State and Holbrooke also deserve credit for his work in 1980 in bringing consular, aviation, maritime, and textile negotiations to a successful conclusion.20


My re-reading of the documents leaves me with these impressions:

—The conceptualization of our China policy was yours. You argued for the global, strategic benefit to be derived from the relationship, and to date you have been proven correct.

—China policy was much more contentious than I had recalled. The initiative came from the NSC, with cooperation from such as Sullivan, Freeman, Armacost, and Platt, but State by and large resisted each step.

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—It is hard to identify another area where our policy has been as successful or where the progress was as great.

If there is a lesson here at all, it is that energetic, intelligent policy-makers can make a difference for our country, providing the circumstances are right and the President understands and supports his staff.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Far East, Oksenberg Subject File, Box 57, Policy Process: 9/79–12/80. No classification marking.
  2. Tab A is printed as Document 131.
  3. See footnotes 2 and 3, Document 127; footnote 3, Document 141; and Documents 149, 159, and 169.
  4. See Document 135.
  5. See Document 123.
  6. In April 1978, following protests, Carter announced that he would defer production of the neutron bomb and its deployment in Europe.
  7. See Document 138.
  8. According to the President’s Daily Diary, Carter, Woodcock, and Brzezinski met on October 11 from 1:15 to 1:35 p.m. (Carter Library, Presidential Materials) No record of the meeting has been found. Carter did mark up a briefing memorandum from Brzezinski that provides the President’s views about many of the questions raised at the meeting. See Document 141.
  9. See Document 149.
  10. See Document 163.
  11. See Documents 166 and 167.
  12. December 15.
  13. Regarding the dinner at Brzezinski’s home, see Document 201. The records of Carter’s meetings with Deng are Documents 202, 204, 205, 207, and 208.
  14. The February 1, 1979, joint press communiqué stated that both the United States and the People’s Republic of China “reaffirm that they are opposed to efforts by any country or group of countries to establish hegemony or domination over others, and that they are determined to make a contribution to the maintenance of international peace, security and national independence.” The communiqué is printed in Public Papers: Carter, 1979, pp. 212–213. See also Document 210.
  15. Not further identified. Oksenberg is perhaps referring to speeches about the normalization of Sino-American relations by Vance and Brzezinski, delivered on January 15, 1979, during a special briefing for senior officials from member firms of the National Council for U.S.–China Trade and the USA/ROC Economic Council. See American Foreign Policy: Basic Documents, 1977–1980, Documents 516 and 518. Excerpts of the two speeches were published in the The New York Times, January 16, 1979, p. A11.
  16. See Document 219.
  17. See footnote 11, Document 264.
  18. See Document 241.
  19. See Document 274.
  20. See Documents 319 and 324.