63. Memorandum From Michel Oksenberg of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1


  • Five Reasons We Treat the Chinese Differently

Tom Thornton’s memorandum on the ill-fated President–Huang Hua meeting2 did raise a good question which now merits a more considered response: Why should we be willing to treat the Chinese differently? Here are five reasons.

—In fact, we treat each major nation distinctively—the Soviets, England, France, Japan, Israel, and so on. Our foreign policy must take into account special cultural and strategic factors in dealing with each country. So be it with China.

—We pay China less to support NATO than we do some of our NATO allies. If it takes a certain amount of deference to Chinese symbols to help ease Chinese tacit support of our global strategic posture, it is a cheap price to pay. Put more abstractly, on balance, our current relationship with China is basically reciprocal, but the overall symmetry is attained through asymmetry in particular realms. For example, we have diplomatic links with both Peking and Taipei; we are the only country in this position. Even comparatively low ranking Americans meet high-level Chinese officials in Peking, but the President and Vice President rarely greet visiting Chinese. We must therefore keep in perspective those areas where the advantage is in Chinese hands: our willingness to visit them in Peking and, to a certain extent, to conform to their Middle Kingdom outlook.

[Page 255]

—How we treat the Chinese, as superior, equal, patron, client, or whatever, has been an issue since Americans first came to Chinese shores in the late 1700s. If history teaches us anything, it is this: Efforts unilaterally to stipulate the terms of interaction between the Chinese and us, particularly with the intent of inducing them to behave like us, are bound to fail. We are engaged with the Chinese in the search for mutually satisfactory modes of interaction. It will take a long time to identify them. But in these early stages of that search, we must be flexible and innovative, while simultaneously making sure precedents are not set that will return to haunt us. In the U.N. case, I was perfectly content for us to exert some initiative to set a meeting, since in Peking the Chinese display the initiative in similar circumstances.

—Let us recognize that the United States is not the only country which partly configures itself to conform to Chinese ritual. Others do it as well, particularly Japan and Western European countries. Before departing from the general pattern, one might ask whether others would emulate our example or whether once again our China policy would be isolated from the way others approach diplomacy in Peking.

—Finally, we must remember that we do not recognize PRC officials to be the legitimate representatives of China. We still officially acknowledge Taipei officials to be the representatives of the government of all of China. Until we change this position, it is impossible to deal with PRC officials as we do with diplomats from other countries. We have to compensate for lack of recognition by exaggerating our respect for them in other ways.

In conclusion, we must not approach Peking as supplicants. We must behave with self-dignity. At the same time, we must remain aware of the special strategic, historic, and diplomatic circumstances that surround our relationship with China and adjust ourselves accordingly.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 8, China (People’s Republic of): 10/77–1/78. Confidential. Sent for information. A copy was sent to Thornton. There is no indication on the memorandum that Brzezinski saw it.
  2. See Document 60.