35. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Normalization of US–PRC Relations


  • Secretary of Defense Harold Brown
  • Deputy Secretary of Defense Charles W. Duncan (first minutes only)
  • Ambassador Leonard Woodcock
  • David E. McGiffert, Assistant Secretary, ISA
  • Morton Abramowitz, Deputy Assistant Secretary, ISA
  • Rear Admiral M.S. Holcomb, Military Assistant to the Secretary of Defense
  • Thomas Ridge, Assistant for China, ISA
  • Galen Fox, State: EA/PRCM (notetaker)

Secretary Brown said he was delighted that Ambassador Woodcock was going to Peking and knew of the President’s respect and friendship for him.2 The Secretary added that he was extremely interested in seeing the Chinese remain a counterweight to the Soviets and hoped that the United States would do what it could to further this objective.

Ambassador Woodcock responded that we know less about where the Chinese stand than we have for the last two or so years. He referred to the tough position on Taiwan being taken by the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs (CPIFA) delegation currently touring the United States.3

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Ambassador Woodcock also mentioned the official protest the Chinese have made against his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He said the Chinese had objected to the concern he had expressed about the security of Taiwan.4

Secretary Brown suggested that the Chinese actions may be part of a hard bargaining line and designed to prepare the atmosphere for negotiations. Ambassador Woodcock responded that he hoped that was all it was.

Secretary Brown said that his main concern was that Chinese unhappiness with current US–PRC relations would cause them to shift toward the Soviets. Mr. Abramowitz suggested that the Chinese hard line may reflect their internal political concerns. Ambassador Woodcock said we will have to see how he is received in Peking, then wait to see what happens during the Secretary’s visit.

Ambassador Woodcock next asked the Secretary for his views on US–PRC relations and normalization. Secretary Brown said that the US–PRC relationship has slipped somewhat; not seriously, but clearly since 1972. He said that from the military standpoint, it is very important to stabilize our relationship with China and to avoid the situation where the Chinese are allied with the Soviets against us. He stated that whatever we can do to reduce this possibility is worth doing, as long as we take into account all costs of any such action.

Secretary Brown said that normalization of US–PRC relations would improve the prospects of stabilizing the present relationship and insuring that the Chinese do not move toward a more pro-Soviet stance. He pointed out that the Soviets have 20 percent of their military forces along the Chinese border. It would be a problem for us if these troops were to be moved back to Europe. Secretary Brown added that the political benefits are also analogous, since the Soviets have to keep worrying about the Chinese.

Secretary Brown also noted that normalization would be a serious problem with Congress, but that the time to normalize was during a non-crisis period. Normalization would not necessarily prevent a future deterioration in our relationship, but would make it less likely.

Ambassador Woodcock said that normalization would probably become a serious US domestic issue and get more so day by day. Secretary Brown expressed the view that we can accept this as a domestic issue if the PRC will accept without reaction a Presidential or a Congressional statement which affirms our continuing interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan issue; if the PRC publicly reacts to [Page 111] such a statement, it will be harder for us to sell it in the US. Another problem is that we must be able to continue arms sales to Taiwan.

Ambassador Woodcock agreed, noting it would be a serious problem if the PRC made this point a “fourth condition.” Secretary Brown said they apparently had reasons for changing their declaratory policy.

Secretary Brown noted that his Department is working out a drawdown of our military forces on Taiwan, and expects that one-half or more of the troops can be removed by the end of next year. Ambassador Woodcock thought the US troop withdrawal might occur sooner.

Ambassador Woodcock then returned to the US domestic difficulties posed by the Taiwan question, mentioning that thirty-five Senators had attended a meeting with the CPIFA delegation that was an “absolute disaster” because of the Chinese rhetoric on Taiwan. The Ambassador supposed that the Chinese are as tough as they are because they expected to get it all in 1976, and are disappointed.

Secretary Brown said that the Chinese statements on Taiwan, such as the comments made to Admiral Zumwalt recently,5 are making it harder (for those who favor normalization), but he supposed the Chinese have their own domestic problems. Secretary Brown then asked Ambassador Woodcock what he thought the next thing to do was.

Ambassador Woodcock said that he had talked with the Secretary the previous evening.6 They had agreed that, since we are in the dark as to China’s real intentions, he would feel his own way when he arrived in Peking and see how the Chinese received him. He indicated we will have to wait for the Secretary’s visit to see how far we can actually go toward normalization. Secretary Brown said we are drifting in an unstable situation, which is dangerous. Ambassador Woodcock pointed out, however, that unlike issues such as the Panama Canal treaty which require support of two-thirds of the Senate, normalization was a Presidential decision. Congress’ actions would mainly be involved with providing for continued ties to Taiwan.

Secretary Brown said that he felt that Congressional sentiment was more strongly against extending assistance to those places the President wanted to support, than it was to putting obstacles in the path of Presidential efforts to reduce our overseas involvements. For example, although there had been a Hill reaction against the President’s planned [Page 112] ground troop withdrawal from Korea, Congress was more likely to restrict giving military aid to Korea than it was to prevent the President from removing the troops.

Ambassador Woodcock felt that Congress was misreading the mood of the country. Before he left for Hanoi, Woodcock had anticipated that he would receive a barrage of mail protesting the mission. In fact, he had received only three hate letters in contrast to dozens of letters on the other side.

Secretary Brown said that he felt the country was confused and therefore expressed mixed views on foreign policy questions. The people are concerned about the erosion of the US position, but are not willing to pay for a reversal of this deterioration. Mr. Abramowitz pointed out that the polls on normalization are contradictory with the people favoring both improved relations with the PRC and continued relations with Taiwan. Ambassador Woodcock said that what this shows is that the people like the status quo. Secretary Brown said that time is moving against us, however. The status quo will lead to a deterioration of US–PRC relations.

Ambassador Woodcock agreed. He said that Senator Glenn, among others, feels a strong commitment to the present relationship. Secretary Brown suggested that Senator Glenn was probably worried about the signals abandoning our commitment to Taiwan would send to other countries. Ambassador Woodcock said that this was so. Secretary Brown said that he was seeing Senator Glenn July 14, and would say something to the Senator about Taiwan.

Ambassador Woodcock said that China was stabilizing its internal situation, but that this would be a long drawn out process (that would have its impact on US–PRC relations).

Secretary Brown closed the meeting by wishing Ambassador Woodcock good luck in his assignment and offering to do anything he could for the Ambassador. Ambassador Woodcock replied that he appreciated the opportunity to visit with the Secretary and to receive the scheduled DIA briefing on China’s military strength.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Far East, Oksenberg Subject File, Box 43, Meetings: 6–7/77. Secret; Exdis. Drafted by Fox. The meeting took place at the Department of Defense.
  2. According to the President’s Daily Diary, Carter met on July 7 with Woodcock, Mondale, Vance, Holbrooke, Gleysteen, Brzezinski, and Oksenberg from 2:46 until 3:12 p.m. (Carter Library, Presidential Materials, President’s Daily Diary) No record of this meeting has been found. Carter’s unofficial personal diary notes: “Leonard Woodcock came by with Cy Vance and others to talk about potential normalizing of relationships with China. He’ll be leaving in a week or so to go to Peking, and I told him that I thought normal relations were advisable, that I believed I could sell it to the American people, and that I would be willing to take on the political responsibility of doing so. The only remaining obstacle, of course, is our commitment not to abandon the peaceful existence of the Chinese who live on Taiwan.” (Carter, Keeping Faith, p. 194) Brzezinski prepared talking points for Carter for the meeting with Woodcock. (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 8, China (People’s Republic of): 7–9/77)
  3. The visit of the CPIFA delegation to Washington is described in telegram 157536 to Beijing and Hong Kong, July 7. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, [no film number])
  4. The PRC protest against Woodcock’s testimony was reported in telegram 157291 to Beijing, July 7. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770240–0594)
  5. Retired Admiral Elmo Zumwalt arrived in Beijing on June 29 for a 3-week visit hosted by CPIFA. While he was there, Chinese officials criticized U.S. policy toward Taiwan, sometimes taking “an unusually abrasive style.” (Telegrams 1314, June 29; 1324, July 1; and 1331, July 5, all from Beijing; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770233–0314; D770235–0151; and D770237–0907)
  6. No record of the meeting has been found.