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


  • Reflections on the China Meeting

Upon reflection, I think the China meeting went quite well. We have adopted a forthcoming and concrete negotiating posture. We are prepared to address the total range of issues between us. However, two aspects of the discussion deserve elaboration.

Vance’s agenda must focus upon our respective global foreign policies at least as much as upon the normalization issue. The plain fact is that our parallel strategic interests against the Soviet Union, not bilateral interests, provide the impetus to our relationship with China. Vance’s survey of our global foreign policy must be carefully prepared so that, without pandering to the Chinese, we nonetheless skillfully address some of their major concerns about our policy toward the Soviet Union.

In addition, we should not be overly optimistic that our flexible posture on normalization will elicit a favorable response. The Chinese may rebuff our offer not out of any distrust, dislike, or avarice. Rather, their own strategic position may lead them to conclude that the moment is not propitious for striking a deal. Normalization is a strategic decision for them of major consequence: a decision to tilt decisively toward us in the Soviet-Chinese-U.S. triangle.

Two factors may deter them from surrendering their strategic flexibility at this time.

They may have doubts about the constancy, credibility, and coherence of your approach to the Soviet Union. The Chinese may not yet be convinced that we provide sufficient counterweight to the Soviet Union to make it worth the risks of tilting further in our direction.

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They may believe that Soviet-American relations are so volatile, unpredictable, and tension-ridden that they should remain aloof from the competition. They may hope that with the passage of time, their attractiveness and hence their bargaining leverage will increase.

The above, therefore, calls for patience on our part, even if rebuffed.


If you agree with these thoughts, that I communicate them to Secretary Vance.2

  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. Sent for action. Prepared by Oksenberg whose August 3 covering memorandum to Brzezinski reads: “The attached memorandum is self-explanatory and distills my reaction to the Saturday meeting [see Document 41]. I regretted somewhat the false euphoria and my own failure to address the importance of the strategic issues. I think it is important that the President obtain this memorandum as a corrective.” He added, “the long history of Sino-American relations is replete with instances of Presidents behaving in what they perceived as magnanimous ways toward the Chinese, only to be rebuffed and then alienated because they did not understand the Chinese strategic setting.” (Ibid.)
  2. Carter checked the Approve option and initialed “J.” Under his initial, he wrote, “It’s time for Cy &/or me to meet with ROC ambassador. J.” Brzezinski sent this memorandum to Vance under an August 5 covering letter that reads: “The purpose of the memorandum was to caution the President about undue optimism with respect to the results we can expect from your upcoming visit to the People’s Republic. The President agreed with the thoughts expressed in the memo and my recommendation that I communicate them to you.” Brzezinski drew Vance’s attention to Carter’s handwritten request and added, “(I feel it should be after your trip).” (Ibid.)