53. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • US
  • Michel Oksenberg, NSC Staff
  • PRC
  • Junior Official PRC Foreign Ministry American Affairs Section

On our ride to the airport, I became engaged in a rather detailed discussion.

My interlocutor began by asking whether we would be staying in Japan. I said yes, we would stay one night. We would have consultations with our Japanese allies. Secretary Vance would meet with Prime Minister Fukuda. My interlocutor noted the Japanese wished to avoid shocks. I agreed.

He then asked whether Holbrooke was going to Taipei. I said yes, that we thought it important to indicate to Taipei the seriousness of our intent to advance the normalization process with the People’s Republic.

I then said I hope the People’s Republic is aware of the intensive effort of Taipei to affect US thinking on the China issue. My seat mate said he was, particularly in Congress, and he volunteered that he thought their efforts were having some effect.

I agreed, pointing out that their efforts were nationwide in scope and involved the use of their 14 consulates in the US as well to reach many citizens. He noted that two of these consulates had been established within the last two years, to which I replied that their establishment had occurred longer ago than that, and not under this administration.

I sensed an opportunity for a sustained conversation so I then said that partly because of Taiwan’s lobbying effort, I sensed the trend line was not necessarily in favor of normalization. As we approached the 1980 elections, normalization could become more difficult. He asked why, and I said China policy could become a partisan political issue. People still remember Nixon and Ford approved of normalization, but as Republican involvement fades from memory, it will be more dif[Page 216]ficult to obtain bi-partisan support. He seemed to recognize this problem.

He then asked me why PRM 24 had been set aside and why the President had not considered it. I replied that press accounts which alleged this were not totally accurate.2

In a technical sense, it was true the President had not considered PRM 24. The President wishes always to be able to tell the truth. But the President was aware of the major issues in PRM 24. I said I hoped he understood a PRM was not a position paper. He replied that he knew that, that it presented options. I then said that the truth was that Secretary Vance’s presentation in China grew out of PRM 24 and was not separable from it. I told him I wanted to make two points about the inaccuracies in the press coverage on PRM 24. First, reports that division existed between the China specialists and the top people—the President, Vance, and Brzezinski—were inaccurate. We have a real unanimity of views. This press inaccuracy is unfortunate.

Second, as I am sure he now realized following Secretary Vance’s presentation to Minister Huang and Vice Premier Teng, press reporting that the President has not made up his mind on China policy and on the issues in PRM 24 were inaccurate. The President is very serious about his commitment to the Shanghai Communique and the normalization process. But from our point of view, it is fortunate the press has not acquired an accurate sense of the full nature of Secretary Vance’s presentation. The Chinese official asked whether we therefore had leaked misinformation. Did this mean when reports on PRM’s appeared in the press—even though inaccurate—we had placed the story? I replied no, that in the case of PRM 24, we simply had been, on balance, lucky. I recalled one exception, the early leak on PRM 24, Pt. III which dealt with ways of improving scientific and technologic exchanges with the PRC, had been highly inaccurate. We were not clear exactly what the news reporter had seen, but we did know it was a very early draft which had subsequently been substantially revised in form and substance.

I added that while we had been lucky thus far with PRM 24, we had been unlucky with PRM 10.3 There, highly inaccurate and partial leaks had distorted the true thrust of the document.

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I then said it was interesting that the Chinese followed our PRM’s and we tried to follow their Central Document (chung-fa) series. He said that Central Documents only dealt with internal matters, however. I said I thought that was basically true, but didn’t they also deal with military matters. At least, that was what the Hong Kong press said, and People’s Daily recently referred to a central document on military modernization. He said yes, that was true.

I then asked whether the Chinese also write policy papers. He said not in the same way. The Chinese are not as systematic and intelligent in the way they make their policy. I said I did not agree.

He then asked who the main people in the U.S. government were (who the main “culprits” were) [he used the term in a joking, friendly manner, not in its pejorative sense] in planning our China policy, in addition to myself. I mentioned Gleysteen, Holbrooke, Thayer, Romberg, Roy and officials in the Defense Department. I added that Treasury also was involved.

He asked whether Vance had come to Peking with considerable negotiating latitude. I tried to avoid answering this question, replying that the President, Brzezinski, and Vance have an excellent working relationship. We have no Kissinger–Rogers type rivalry. He said he understood that. I said the President has great trust in the Secretary’s abilities and negotiating skills.

I then said I was glad the CPIFA had come to the United States. I thought they had contributed to Sino-American understanding, and he thereupon laughed slightly. But, I said, I thought the instructions upon which they operated had been too tight. He first asked rhetorically, does that mean their mouths were tight, and that they were the first political-diplomatic delegation that the PRC has sent to the U.S.

He then asked me what I thought of the claims-assets issue. Did I think that was something that could only be settled at the right moment in the overall context? I said I was sure he knew of our earlier discussions with Han Hsu. He did. I said it had been our hope that both sides could forget the unproductive discussion we had on this matter from late 1973 on, and return to the promising position of early 1973, including the Chou–Kissinger talks of the fall of 1973. I then asked whether he understood the nature of our problem. Congressional action is necessary to ratify a settlement, and we believe we need about 40¢ on the dollar for the claimants for the deal to pass Congress. The Congress had defeated a 42¢ settlement for Czechoslovakia, but the Administration would be inclined to recommend 40¢ settlement with China. If we only considered the blocked accounts in U.S. banks, we would drop way below a 40¢ settlement. I noted that the blocked assets in third countries which the Chinese have obtained would obviously be helpful in this regard. He then said that after all $17 million (he volun[Page 218]teered the figure) is a small sum for a rich country like the U.S. I said the issue here was one of Congressional principle. But the principle dealt not with China alone. We also have a claims-assets problem with Cuba, for example, with the value well over a billion dollars.

My Chinese questioner observed that Congress plays an important and complicating role. I said that was true; it did make things more difficult. But on the other hand, Congressional involvement means that once a policy is adopted, it will have greater support. On too many issues in the past, China was not one, but Indochina and Soviet Union were—Congress was insufficiently involved and the policies adopted were not popular. I thought it was better to make sure a policy had survivability.

I said Mr. Holbrooke and I had consulted with over 40 Senators and Representatives in the three weeks before our departure. In effect, we summarized PRM 24 for them, without indicating the basis for the summary. He asked whether any Senators had read the PRM. I said no, that would be inappropriate. But we outlined its major themes orally. For example, I had met with Senator Jackson for 1½ hours, we had met with John Glenn, the Chairman of the Asian Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, many other members of that committee, Birch Bayh, and so on.

He then asked me whether Senator Kennedy’s speech reflected administration thinking.4 I asked him what he thought of Kennedy’s speech. He said he thought it was no different from Secretary Vance’s presentation. He asked me what the difference was. I said that Senator Kennedy had decided to make a China speech before we had briefed him on our China trip and that the speech represented his own views. I again asked what he thought of the speech. He said he thought it was aimed at the domestic audience. He believed that the speech was a trial balloon to test domestic reaction. I repeated that it was Kennedy’s own speech and again I asked what he thought of it. He said he thought in principle it was acceptable but he had not read and studied the entire text of the speech and really could not express an opinion.

He said he had followed the reaction to Kennedy’s speech. He thought the reaction was favorable. In previous months, the East Coast [Page 219] press clearly was advocating a two China policy, particularly the New York Times. But the Times editorial on the Kennedy speech was favorable. I agreed.

The official then informed me, under questioning, that his civil service rank was Grade 20 and that he worked in the America Section of the Foreign Ministry. His position was not as high as Lien Hung-pao. He then volunteered that he visited the United States in 1973, with the first tour of the Scientific delegation. He said perhaps we had met at that time, as he recalled that I still lived in New York at that time. At this point we arrived at the airport.

Observation. I suspect this conversation will be reported back. I’m not sure the conversation was planned, but my interlocutor was clearly well briefed and willing to seize the opportunity I presented.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 8, China (People’s Republic of): 7–9/77. Secret; Nodis. All brackets are in the original. The conversation occurred en route to the Beijing airport. In his September 7 covering memorandum to Brzezinski, Oksenberg noted that the conversation had been in English. On the covering memorandum, Brzezinski wrote, “interesting.” (Ibid.)
  2. The reference is presumably to a June 24 report in The New York Times, which had acquired a copy of PRM 24, of disagreement among administration officials concerning PRM 24 and the preparation of papers in response to Parts I and II of PRM 24. (Bernard Weinraub, “U.S. Study Sees Peril in Selling Arms to China, The New York Times, June 24, 1977, p. 1) PRM 24 is Document 24. The papers written in response to Parts I and II are described in Document 32. The Policy Review Committee discussed Parts I and II on June 27; see Document 34. The executive summary of the paper in response to Part III of PRM 24 is Document 67.
  3. See footnote 3, Document 50.
  4. Senator Edward Kennedy (D–Massachusetts) delivered a speech on August 15 to the World Affairs Council in Boston in which he advocated the cessation of formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, the normalization of relations with China, and the continuation of ties with Taiwan on an unofficial basis. See Murrey Marder, “Plan Offered For Normal Peking Ties: Kennedy Proposals Believed to Parallel Vance’s Thinking,” The Washington Post, August 16, 1977, p. A1; David Binder, “Kennedy Calls for Diplomatic Split With Taiwan and Ties With China,” The New York Times, August 16, 1977, p. 3; Edward M. Kennedy, “Now, Another Stab at Normalizing U.S.-China Relations: Kennedy Urges Full Ties With Peking but Not Abandoning Taiwan,” Los Angeles Times, August 21, 1977, p. E2.