41. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Jimmy Carter, President of the United States
  • Cyrus Vance, Secretary of State
  • Harold Brown, Secretary of Defense
  • Richard Holbrooke, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs
  • Hamilton Jordan, Asst to the President
  • Zbigniew Brzezinski, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
  • Michel Oksenberg, Staff Member, NSC


  • China Policy

President Carter: The purpose of this meeting is to outline basic strategic considerations in our dealings with China and to exchange views on our China policy. My first question is: “What would the worldwide reaction be to normalization?”

Secretary Vance: It would be positive. The Japanese would accept it. The Southeast Asians would welcome it. The Soviets would not be surprised, and it would strengthen our position with them. It would make them realize that they have to work out something with us. This would be the case as long as we have no arms sales to China. The Middle East would be generally good and accept it. The Saudis are close to Taiwan, but they would accept it; our bilateral relations would not be affected. In Korea, the South Koreans would be ambivalent. In fact, it could mean a more positive future for them, but no doubt they would wonder. The North Koreans, I suspect, would have a mixed reaction.

President Carter: What countries have our kind of relations with China and Taiwan?

Dr. Brzezinski: None.

President Carter: How about Japan?

Secretary Vance: No, Japan lacks official diplomatic relations with Taiwan. We are the only country with official missions in both countries.

Mr. Holbrooke: In the past, Great Britain had a consulate in Taiwan and a mission in Peking, but the Chinese never let the representative obtain ambassadorial status. He was kept at the charge level.

[Page 124]

Secretary Brown: I would stress that the strategic effect of normalization would be substantial and positive. Which countries would see it negatively depends on how we end up with Taiwan.

President Carter: It would be useful for me to have a sense of the legal status of this issue vis-a-vis Congress. If we are to end up with the kind of relations with Taiwan as we wish, would legislative action have to be taken? I would like something in a simple tabular form.

What is the likely status of Taiwan ten years hence?

Secretary Vance: I think it is likely to develop along the lines of an autonomous entity. Peking has the capability of tolerating a diversity of forms, as long as Taiwan does not claim to be the government of China or an independent state. They have done this with Tibet, which is an autonomous region.

Mr. Oksenberg: I’m not sure that Tibet is the pertinent example, but I think that it is hard to predict the status of Taiwan ten years from now. What I feel confident in saying is that normalization will increase the chances that Taiwan will evolve as an independent entity, developing its relations with Peking in a peaceful manner. At present, there are four reasons that China does not attack Taiwan: 1) Peking has limited military capability; 2) in order to bring this military capability to bear, Sino-Soviet relations would have to improve, to allow the Chinese to redeploy their forces southward; 3) any attack on Taiwan would disrupt Peking’s relations with Japan, the U.S., and Southeast Asia; and 4) the buildup would require that Taiwan could take counter-measures. But the basic factor governing Peking’s behavior is the military balance. Normalization hopefully will set in motion processes that would encourage both sides to seek a peaceful accommodation. There is no incentive to do that at the present time.

Mr. Holbrooke: The question of Taiwan ten years from now is a difficult one. But I would say that the answer will depend greatly on the first 12 months. Here the key is a psychological factor—will the people in Taiwan remain confident of their own future? And the key elements here are the economic ties that the island would have with us and a continued U.S. arms sales.

Secretary Vance: The issue of continued arms sales to Taiwan in the post-normalization era has never been raised with the Chinese. We may have to mention it. We cannot leave it unraised. We must raise it. But it must be raised in an indirect fashion, by insinuation, so that we do not force the Chinese into a situation where they have to explicitly oppose it.

President Carter: Well, as to which approach we use, the indirect or the direct, I am for laying it on the line. Use the direct approach.

Secretary Vance: I agree, especially if Teng is the interlocutor. Teng is very blunt and direct.

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Secretary Brown: Also, we will need to tell Congress what was said. We will have to be confident in our own mind arms sales can continue.

Mr. Holbrooke: There are really two things which the Chinese will have to accept. First, the Chinese will have to understand that they cannot talk publicly about the right to liberate Taiwan by force. Second, through indirection and acquiescence, they will have to accept our continued sales of arms.

Mr. Oksenberg: There is also a problem of whether the Chinese will be able to tolerate a frank discussion in the U.S. about our evaluation of PRC military capabilities vis-a-vis Taiwan and about the nature of our post-normalization relationship with Taipei. As we reveal our long-term hopes for Taiwan, they may feel compelled to respond with verbal militancy.

Dr. Brzezinski: What evidence do we have that the Chinese will accept arms sales? How can we be so sure?

Mr. Holbrooke: Well, the Chinese thus far have explicitly mentioned three conditions for normalization: abrogation of the Defense Treaty, severance of diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and withdrawal of all military forces and military installations. If the Chinese were to add no arms sales, then they have added a fourth condition.

We are proceeding in the hope that the Chinese care a great deal about symbols, and that they are willing to tolerate a continued U.S. security relationship with Taiwan in substance in order to obtain a form of relationship that affirms their legitimacy as the government of China.

Secretary Vance: Well, we’ll just have to find out. Through the direct approach, we will ascertain their position.

President Carter: [Reads the relevant portion of the Shanghai Communique dealing with both sides’ position on the Taiwan issue.]2 Well, it looks to me as if we are just coming around to their view.

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Mr. Oksenberg: We would be coming around to their view in public but less so in private. You must remember Nixon’s five points, which after all accepted their three principles.3 We are willing to declare publicly more than we have stated publicly before, but our private statement to the Chinese—which would become public later—does not go as far as Nixon’s five points.

Secretary Vance: Yes, we are pulling back from Nixon’s private five points.

President Carter: Would Taiwan go independent? I ask that because Charlie Kirbo—he’s my Averell Harriman—saw Ambassador Shen. He tried to see Kirbo on several occasions. You know how these Taiwanese have been running all over Georgia, Atlanta, and Plains. Mike knows all about it. Well, Kirbo then asked me whether we should encourage Taiwan to go independent. I didn’t ask him where he got this idea, but I suspect that it’s an idea that comes from Shen through him. Maybe they’re trying to tell us something.

Mr. Holbrooke: Taiwan would not declare itself independent. Its leaders are pragmatic. It would raise all sorts of uncertainties. Rather, what we’re likely to see is that if the Taiwanese conclude that normalization is really upon them, they then will seek to maintain investment confidence in the island by not undertaking destabilizing measures at home and projecting a sense of confidence that they could induce abroad.

Secretary Vance: I tend to agree with that, but Taiwan cannot be taken for granted.

Mr. Oksenberg: I agree. As long as Taiwan is not pushed into a desperate position, they are unlikely to declare their independence. But if they believe that their very survival is at stake, then they might undertake desperate measures. How we act toward them, therefore, will affect the extent to which they would consider going independent. As Holbrooke said earlier, how we behave in the earliest period and what we do about normalization will be absolutely crucial.

We also have to remember that our continued presence on Taiwan is a plus to the Chinese. We keep Taiwan from going nuclear, from developing relations with the Soviet Union, or from going independent.

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President Carter: What do you mean by that?

Mr. Oksenberg: We act as a restraint on Taipei. The Defense Treaty would lapse if they declared independence now. Later, they would be uncertain as to how we’d react to such a move.

Dr. Brzezinski: Well, if that is the case, then perhaps in addition to stating that “We should neither encourage nor stimulate the creation of an independent Taiwan,” we should also say we would not recognize an independent Taiwan. Unless one adds that clause, one really is adding nothing to the two previous clauses, and it is therefore unnecessary. (Brzezinski here was talking about the three clauses at the bottom of page 6 of State’s strategy paper.)4

Secretary Vance: The third clause does add something. It indicates our intent. Further, it is a statement which combines aspects of Nixon’s five points, though in different wording, and its omission would be noted by the Chinese. If we are to accept Brzezinski’s added clause of “not granting recognition,” then we would be foregoing an option that we could exercise in the event a peaceful solution does not seem to be in the offing.

Mr. Oksenberg: The third clause in my opinion is important.

President Carter: Well, let’s leave it this way: Don’t initiate this issue, but if they raise it we can say this or use the Nixon language. I personally have no trouble with the third clause.

On the matter of timing, I want you not to give any definite time, but you can use the word “promptly” or “as soon as possible.”

Secretary Vance: That’s fine. And we all agree on the direct approach.

President Carter: My own inclination is to be bold about it. My experience in life has been that it never pays to procrastinate. If we are sure that our position is correct, I am prepared to move ahead as soon as possible. Let’s get our ducks in a row and get it over with. After all, the Taiwan Lobby is active. If we are forthcoming and they accept, then I am ready to move on it. We will need the JCS and Congress. I will [Page 128] make a Fireside Chat. I will talk to the Congressional leadership; I will ask their agreement. It is a Presidential prerogative. I will only ask their support.

Secretary Vance: How will the Chiefs go?

Secretary Brown: In private, they are supportive. In public, I am not so sure. Young, Wilson, Brown, are all for it privately.

President Carter: Would Jones stand up to Goldwater?

Secretary Brown: Yes. That’s possible. The main thing that they all feel is that we can’t run out on Taiwan. As long as they are assured on this score, I think they would be supportive.

It would help if Vance could bring something back in the strategic realm.

Secretary Vance: You mean something like on Korea or Japan? I intend to do that.

Secretary Brown: No. I was thinking of something different. They may be less forthcoming than we would like. It will be important to discuss Africa with them and so on. Talk with them about general technology transfer, talk not about military technology but non-military technology. If a hot line could be established, this would help. In short, some symbolic indication that the level of our strategic cooperation is improving would contribute greatly to the support for normalization.

President Carter: I agree. That should be part of the talks. We could add on something else, a trip by Jim Schlesinger to talk about energy and oil. I visited an oil rig last week off the Louisiana coast, and that was most impressive. If the Chinese could get those rigs up and down their coasts, that would be most impressive.

Secretary Vance: That is an excellent idea, to have Schlesinger go to China. They like him.

Dr. Brzezinski: To the extent possible, the trip should not just be a mission on normalization. It must take on the aspects of a consultation on worldwide affairs. It must be global. We must make a full briefing on SALT.

President Carter: I agree. But there is no reason to knock the Soviets. I don’t want to do what Nixon and Kissinger did, which almost nauseated me. They knocked our allies, the Russians, and so on. If the Chinese did the same thing to us, I would despise them.

Rather, be forthcoming. Tell them that we have gotten the Soviets not to include China in a CTB for a few years. This is to their advantage.

Mr. Holbrooke: Yes. We should lay out our view of the world.

President Carter: They have this strange, obsessive hatred of the Soviets.

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Dr. Brzezinski: But the trip must have the atmosphere of a consultative relationship between two countries that have parallel strategic interests.

Are there collateral unilateral measures that we can make to Taiwan prior to the visit?

Secretaries Vance and Brown: After, not before.

Secretary Brown: If you pull out the forces before an agreement is reached, it might be the wrong signal.

Secretary Vance: I feel strongly about this. We should not appear too eager.

President Carter: You know, several months ago I got a map showing the sites of all Chinese missiles and their range. The Chinese deployment of missiles clearly shows that they would defend themselves in case of an attack by using nuclear weapons on their own soil. Why do they wish to defend themselves in that way?

Secretary Vance: This reveals their view of nuclear weapons, that China could survive a nuclear war, that nuclear weapons are not something to be feared.

Mr. Oksenberg: It also reflects Mao’s strategy of guerrilla war, that you lure an enemy in deep.

President Carter: Yes. Nixon and Kissinger were told that the Chinese would defend themselves with millet and rifles. They don’t need anti-tank missiles.

Mr. Oksenberg: Of course, I’m not sure that they will continue to say that. They have now moved into the post-Mao era. They are in the midst of a debate on military major modernization. There is some evidence that they are interested in acquiring anti-missile technology. In the years ahead, they may alter their military doctrine.

Dr. Brzezinski: Yes, the Russians did that.

It would be useful to update the map you had on Chinese missiles and also on Soviet strength against the Chinese. That should be in Vance’s briefcase.

President Carter: How about U.S. representation on Taiwan? How important is official U.S. representation in Taiwan?

Mr. Holbrooke: It would be very hard for us to follow the Japanese model.5 We probably will need U.S. Government officials in Taiwan. This is something that we will have to work out with our lawyers.

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Secretary Vance: Now we turn to the question on the bottom of page 10 and the top of page 11.6 What kind of statement can we expect from the Chinese?

President Carter: We asked the Chinese for the first, namely, a statement that they intended to pursue a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan issue. But I doubt they’ll give it to us.

Mr. Oksenberg: I agree. But it may be possible for us to extract from them an indication of their patience on the matter. To some extent, we are involved in horse trading here. The more explicit we indicate to them we must be with respect to the nature of our continuing relationship with Taiwan post-normalization, the less willing they will be to indicate patience or peaceful intent.

Secretary Vance: As to a draft communique, I have doubts about our preparing this. Do we want to table a normalization communique?

President Carter: I am for that. Before you leave, put these principles of ours in a draft communique. Leave one copy in the White House. You have a copy. Number each sentence. And we can communicate about it by referring to numbers.

Mr. Oksenberg: I think that the tabling of the draft communique is important. It would be one of the few tangible signs that we are prepared to go farther than the previous administrations ever did. It would engage the Chinese in a negotiating process. I would not expect them to accept it right away, but it gives us reason to meet with them soon thereafter.

President Carter: What if they accept? We would need some time. It would take two months to prepare Congress and others. We simply are not benefiting by delay. I am prepared to work within that time frame.

Secretary Vance: Okay. That’s it.

Mr. Jordan: There will be votes needed on the Hill.

President Carter: Yes. We need to have a sense of the legislation required.

Mr. Jordan: I would hope that this would not occur until after the recess (i.e., after the November recess).

Mr. Holbrooke: We must be careful not to overload the number of issues on the Hill. We also have to be concerned that Congress does not [Page 131] torpedo our diplomatic success by a stronger reaffirmation of our ties with Taiwan than we can stand. We also have to get our arguments in order, particularly with respect to the lapsing of the Treaty. It is clear that that single action will disturb Congress more deeply than any other. If done in October, the results might be disastrous. January would be better.

If there were an agreement in principle on this trip and if that news leaked to Congress, it could be put to a vote. That would be disadvantageous from our point of view.

President Carter: I think we can hold if we go public. The legalities are on our side.

Mr. Holbrooke: We will also wish to talk to the Taiwanese again. They will have to be prepared. Up until now, we did not see the Taiwanese because symbolically we wished to indicate to Peking that our tilt was in their direction. Now that in reality we are moving on normalization, there is less need for the symbolism to be insulting to Taiwan.

President Carter: That is a good point. Why not talk to them: let’s call Shen in.

Secretary Vance: I will see him before I go to Peking to indicate three things: that we are serious about normalization; that we are concerned about our own relations with them; and that some of their actions in the U.S. are counter-productive.

Dr. Brzezinski: What other steps do we have in mind if the Chinese stonewall? After all, it is very possible that the Chinese will not be responsive to our normalization overture.

Secretary Vance: We could discuss trade in a constructive manner. I do not intend to initiate a briefing on military intelligence. But we could talk about facilitating the flow of non-defense-related technology.

Dr. Brzezinski: Yes. We could consider the licensing of commodities which we have been reluctant to license: two seismic computers, one seismic ship, and a LANDSAT receiving station.

Let us study those in detail.

Secretaries Vance and Brown: Agreed.

Mr. Oksenberg: This should be tightly held. Who at Defense should I contact on this?

Secretary Brown: Perry.

Mr. Holbrooke: I think it is also important to ask what we want from them: wheat? trade?

President Carter: This is a good point. What we need from them are political things that would help the normalization process. Trade would be useful in that regard. I just want to lay it out. Be frank with [Page 132] them. Discuss our political situation with them and how they can be helpful. If they’re abusive, then Cy can just come home. My impression is that the Chinese appreciate candor.

The Taiwan issue is the only block in normalizing our relations, isn’t it?

Mr. Oksenberg: Well, the Chinese are not helpful by their refusal to discuss areas where we can be more cooperative in the strategic realm.

Secretary Vance: That’s right. For example, on Africa and Korea, they are reluctant to state publicly what they may indicate to us privately.

President Carter: But that isn’t a block to normalization, is it?

Mr. Oksenberg: That is right, but their public rhetoric makes it more difficult to demonstrate to the American people that there is advantage to normalization.

President Carter: I see what you mean.

Dr. Brzezinski: I think this discussion suggests that there are three component elements to our relationship with Peking: 1) global strategic elements, including the Soviet Union; 2) normalization; and 3) other aspects of the bilateral relationship, such as trade, technology transfer, credit, and so on. We wish to move forward on a wide front, in any one of these three areas. From our point of view, there is no linkage among the three. The strategic realm, we wish to move forward in normalization. We wish to widen and deepen our bilateral relationship.

President Carter: How about the leadership changes in China?

Dr. Brzezinski: We can assume that the Sino-Soviet dispute will continue, unabated. Teng is anti-Soviet. He was central in waging the dispute for years.

Mr. Oksenberg: I am not so sure. I think over a two to three year period it is possible that Sino-Soviet relations could improve. We cannot take the current intensity of the Sino-Soviet dispute for granted.

Dr. Brzezinski: It is important that we explore the strategic dimension of our relationship, for example, exploring Chinese attitudes toward Korea.

President Carter: Is there an initiative we can take in this area?

Secretary Vance: Probably not. But certainly we will undertake a global review of our policies and theirs. This is explicit in our strategy paper.

President Carter: I think we have covered all the points.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Far East, Oksenberg Subject File, Box 47, Presidential 7/30/77 on Cyrus Vance Trip to China: 4–8/77. Top Secret; Sensitive. All brackets are in the original. The meeting took place in the White House. Talking points for this meeting that Brzezinski prepared for Carter are in the Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Far East, Oksenberg Subject File, Box 56, Policy Process: 7/77.
  2. The relevant portions read: “The Chinese side reaffirmed its position: The Taiwan question is the crucial question obstructing the normalization of relations between China and the United States; the Government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government of China; Taiwan is a province of China which has long been returned to the motherland; the liberation of Taiwan is China’s internal affair in which no other country has the right to interfere; and all U.S. forces and military installations must be withdrawn from Taiwan. The Chinese Government firmly opposes any activities which aim at the creation of ‘one China, one Taiwan’, ‘one China, two governments’, ‘two Chinas’, an ‘independent Taiwan’ or advocate that ‘the status of Taiwan remains to be determined’. The U.S. side declared: The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position. It reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves. With this prospect in mind, it affirms the ultimate objective of the withdrawal of all U.S. forces and military installations from Taiwan. In the meantime, it will progressively reduce its forces and military installations on Taiwan as the tension in the area diminishes.” (Public Papers: Nixon, 1972, p. 378)
  3. Nixon endorsed the “five principles” during a meeting with Zhou Enlai on February 22, 1972. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. XVII, China, 1969–1972, Document 196. As stated in Brzezinski’s talking points for Carter, China’s “three conditions” for establishment of full diplomatic relations were severance of diplomatic relations with Taiwan, abrogation of the Mutual Defense Treaty, and withdrawal of all U.S. forces and military installations from Taiwan. (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Far East, Oksenberg Subject File, Box 56, Policy Process: 7/77)
  4. Prepared as a follow-up to the June 27 PRC meeting (see Document 34), the Department of State paper, “Alternative Negotiating Strategies for Normalizing US–PRC Relations,” suggested three clauses that could be communicated to the PRC Government: “acknowledge the view expressed in the Shanghai Communiqué that Taiwan is part of China; support [any] peaceful resolution of the Taiwan question by the Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait; and neither encourage nor stimulate the creation of an independent or separate status for Taiwan.” (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Far East, Oksenberg Subject File, Box 56, Policy Process: 7/77) The brackets are in the original.
  5. Often referred to as the Japanese formula after the nature of Sino-Japanese relations after resumption of relations between the two nations in 1972, the arrangement allowed for people-to-people contacts and non-governmental trade arrangements, but no Embassies or Ambassadors in the respective capitals.
  6. Pages 10 and 11 of the Department of State paper consider whether China would be willing to make a public statement “preferably to be included in the communiqué issued at the time of normalization but desirable even as a domestic statement—of their hope or intent to settle the issue peacefully—or to exercise great patience. We should underscore the relevance of such a statement to our ability to secure Congressional support for a normalization agreement.” Carter underlined the words “or to exercise great patience” and wrote two question marks above them.