90. Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs (McGiffert) to Secretary of Defense Brown 1


  • Timing of a US–PRC Normalization Initiative

This memorandum sets forth my thoughts on when we should normalize diplomatic relations with China.

The Basic Options

Timing has always bedeviled our efforts to improve relations with the PRC. There has never been a “perfect” time—only better or worse times. The keys are to recognize when an opportunity exists and to be willing to move boldly. In this regard, we should move soon—well before the next Presidential election. If we don’t it is likely that we will not be able to do so until 1981.

Within this time frame, we have two options.

—First, we could make a major effort to complete and announce normalization before the 1978 Congressional elections. This would require us to move more rapidly and decisively than anyone now expects, in order to capitalize on what appears to be a favorable environment for normalization.

—Alternatively, we could take a more measured approach and develop a public and Congressional consensus supporting normalization prior to announcing any US–PRC agreement. Our efforts in consensus building would proceed gradually over the year but would peak only after the Congressional elections in order to avoid having normalization become a campaign issue. Normalization would be announced sometime in 1979.

The Need for Exploratory Talks

Both alternatives would require exploratory discussions with the Chinese to see if an agreement is possible. During these talks we would accept China’s three conditions as long as they are willing to accept a “US formula” which:

—explicitly or implicitly allows us to continue to sell arms to Taiwan;

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—would leave unchallenged a US statement or Congressional resolution which affirms our continuing interest, as in the Shanghai Communique, in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan problem (we see this as essential to explain why, in fact, the Mutual Security Treaty is no longer necessary); and,

—provides an explicit PRC agreement to unimpeded economic and social contacts.

Although we could announce the exploratory talks in advance, it would be better to conduct them in secret in order to avoid a public label of failure (such as another Vance visit without demonstrable progress) and/or needlessly involve the China issue in the 1978 elections.

We believe that Teng and Hua will have to be personally involved in these exploratory discussions and, therefore, the talks will have to be conducted in Peking. Since the initial approach should be low-key it seems most practical to have Leonard Woodcock do it.

Difficulties and Uncertainties

Either option could create difficult bureaucratic (and possibly political) problems, since there still are many loose ends to the normalization issue, particularly legal ones. For example, we have to determine how we can “do business as usual” with Taiwan in the absence of diplomatic relations. Similarly, we have to decide how to do away with the Mutual Defense Treaty (do we let it lapse, ask Congress to repeal it, etc?) While these legal questions are important, they should be manageable. Unfortunately, we have not done so as yet.

We also face a particular problem with the management of arms sales to Taiwan. We have a number of major items for Taiwan awaiting approval. These include 60 F–4s or F–5s, an additional battalion of Improved-Hawks, and the Harpoon missile. Provision of some or all of this equipment would make public and Congressional support for normalization more likely. However, an announcement of such a large volume of sales could adversely affect normalization negotiations with the PRC. The longer the period before normalization, the more such sales announcements can be spaced out. After normalization sales of this magnitude will be difficult even with an implicit or explicit PRC agreement to US arms sales to Taiwan.

Finally, there are uncertainties under either alternative.

—We are not sure that the PRC is willing to make accommodations to our internal political requirements either in the absence or as a result of a full-fledged debate over normalization in the US.

—The strength of public and Congressional views (pro and con) on normalization is untested. The President’s personal involvement and leadership will be necessary to rally public and Congressional support regardless of which alternative is selected. Politically, we do not [Page 320] now know whether normalization—either quickly or over a longer period of time—will be beneficial to the President.

—Either of these options involve risks with our Asian allies. Coming on the heels of our Asian posture to date they may see rapid normalization as further US retreat. We can take actions to reduce this perception such as delaying the first phase of Korean withdrawal.

Alternative 1: Achieve and Announce Normalization Before the Election

Under this alternative we would try to complete and announce normalization before the 1978 Congressional elections. This could be done secretly and followed by a sudden announcement, or we could delay the announcement and provide some time to better prepare our allies and build a public and Congressional consensus for normalization. In either case the agreement itself would be preceded by minimal consultation.


—It could restore the image of the President as a bold and dynamic leader and help reverse his sagging foreign policy prestige. Normalization will be at his initiative—at a time of his choosing—and under conditions that he has established. At the same time, by moving years before the 1980 election we reduce (but do not eliminate) the possibility of normalization becoming an issue at that time.

—Second, quick movement on establishing diplomatic relations is not something the Soviets can complain about—but it should contribute to our effort to moderate Soviet behavior in Africa and elsewhere by demonstrating that we will not be bound by Soviet choices of where they might want to confront our interests. It also serves as a sharp reminder to the Soviets that détente is not an “all or nothing proposition” and that we have other important interests that we intend to pursue.

—Third, the Congressional calendar appears free. It is clear that we cannot obtain ratification of a SALT agreement this year and Congress will have completed action on the Panama Canal Treaties and the Middle East Aircraft Package before any successful normalization becomes public. Therefore, we will not be jeopardizing other high value foreign policy legislation.

—Finally, it enables us to capitalize on a favorable political climate within China, where the always uncertain domestic political scene appears the best it has been in years for progress on normalization.


—The Chinese could be confused by our coming on strong—especially if we press them for an early agreement. They could see our urgency as weakness and spurn any obeisance to our internal needs.

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—Domestically this alternative is inconsistent with the image of an “open administration” and full Congressional consultations. Congressional and public reaction could be sharp. Conceivably the conservatives might make it an election issue to the President’s disfavor. However, we could enhance the political appeal of normalization by ensuring that Hua or Teng would visit Washington soon after the announcement of normalization. (The President, however, may want to keep a high-ranking Chinese visit in reserve until 1980.)

—A sudden normalization would be more likely to scare our Asian allies further about US withdrawal from Asia. In particular, the Japanese—if unwarned in any way—would be totally surprised and would consider it a Carter “shock.”

—Timing will be very tight. We have limited time to deal with the bureaucratic “loose ends” mentioned earlier. Congress would have to consider any implementing legislation by late July to permit action before the election; this would mean agreement would probably have to be wrapped up by late June, not an easy schedule.

Alternative 2: A More Measured Approach

Under this alternative we would gradually build momentum towards normalization through reciprocal steps if our initial explorations in Peking proved promising.


—It is consistent with the foreign policy process of an open administration. Congressional and public reaction may not be as sharp if they were consulted, lobbied and allowed to participate in the decision-making process. At the same time, the Chinese would be monitoring the Congressional and public debate and may become more attuned to US domestic political constraints.

—It would provide us more time to get our own house in order—to tie up the loose ends mentioned earlier and space out the arms sales. We would also have more time to consult with our allies and convince them that normalization of US–PRC relations is in their own best interest.


—It gives opponents ready opportunity to mobilize public opinion against normalization and introduce crippling legislative or public relation efforts to stop or hinder the process. We would certainly have significant lobbying from Taiwan to that end.

—It could become entangled in next year’s SALT ratification effort or become delayed by unfortunate 1978 electoral results.

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—To reach early agreement with China and fail to gain public and Congressional support (to include passage of any enabling legislation) would be a grave blow to US–China relations and to our whole foreign policy credibility.

Summary and Conclusions

Assuming we are seriously prepared to meet Chinese terms and the PRC will meet our minimum terms, the China issue becomes again, as it has in the past, a question of US politics and a matter of timing. On the surface it would appear that the text book approach of taking time to build a consensus and then moving makes sense. It seems more logical, more statesman like, and more fitting to the style of this Administration. The timing is not so constricted. On the other hand, it is questionable whether public support and a consensus can be reached without the catalyst of a normalization agreement. Political wisdom indeed may be to have the public discussion follow the President’s decision when persuasion may be easier. In any case, the first step would be to conduct secret, exploratory talks with the Chinese. Indeed, no final decision on timing of a normalization announcement has to—or should—be made until we determine Chinese attitudes towards our minimum conditions. Moreover, a Chinese response to our initial exploration could well be equivocal; this would mean that Cy Vance will at some point probably have to go to Peking to conclude the deal.

The question of timing should be one of the important issues on China policy to be discussed at the pending meeting between you, Vance and Brzezinski. State and NSC are likely to argue for the more “measured” approach. I believe it is essential to have a discussion on timing to surface the pitfalls of either alternative. Moreover, we should not condition ourselves to accepting the dangers and the uncertainties of the easier bureaucratic “slow” route or simply defining away the possibility of the sudden and secret move. The President should have that option placed before him.

David E. McGiffert 2
  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, OSD Files: FRC 330–81–0202, China (Reds) 092. Secret; Eyes Only. This memorandum was stamped “SecDef has seen” on April 4 and again on April 10. At the top of the page, Brown wrote, “4/4. Save for 4/10 meeting on Asian issues. HB.” The meeting took place on April 11; see Document 94.
  2. McGiffert initialed “D.E.M.” above this typed signature.