99. Memorandum From Secretary of State Vance, Secretary of Defense Brown, and the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski) to President Carter1


  • Normalizing U.S.–China Relations


We need an early decision on the priority to be accorded normalization in our foreign policy. Zbig’s May 18 departure for Peking makes this particularly urgent. We can move promptly to try to complete the normalization process either before the 1978 elections or by mid or late summer 1979. Or we can defer normalization until after the presiden [Page 358] tial elections in 1980, in which case we may need to find other ways of trying to sustain our relations with the PRC. Our assumption is that due to domestic political considerations, the window for completing Congressional action on normalization will be closed from late 1979 through the 1980 elections.

Normalization Terms

To establish diplomatic relations with Peking, we will have to close down our official representation on Taiwan, terminate the U.S.–ROC Mutual Defense Treaty, and withdraw our remaining military personnel and installations (which are the three Chinese “conditions”). At the same time, under the only terms we could consider, we would continue arms sales to Taiwan. In addition to these sales, our concern for the island’s future would be manifested through public reaffirmation of our interest in a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves, and in other ways (e.g. Eximbank loans). We would, of course, retain extensive economic, cultural, and other unofficial ties with the island (as the Japanese and others do).

Basic Scenario

If you decide to move ahead toward normalization in 1978/79, we believe that Zbig should indicate during his May visit, but without being drawn into substantive exchanges on the issue, that Woodcock would begin talks in June on the subject of normalization. We then envisage a scenario under which Leonard Woodcock would begin secretly this summer to discuss the details of normalization with the Chinese.

Against the background of our 1977 discussions, Woodcock would tell the Chinese that we are prepared to open discussions as to the modalities and the timing of:

—meeting their three key points;

—terminating official relations with Taiwan, including removal of all2 U.S. Government representation;

—making a unilateral statement indicating the importance of a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves;3

—continuing to provide Taiwan with access to military equipment for defensive purposes (this is the most delicate aspect of the negotiation);

—issuing a joint communique establishing diplomatic relations, in which we would recognize the PRC as the sole legal government of China;4

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—submitting necessary legislation to Congress to implement this arrangement;

—inviting a very high Chinese official to visit Washington to mark the formal establishment of diplomatic relations (or shortly thereafter).

Any references by Woodcock to the timeframe within which we would hope to complete this process would need to take into account our calculations at the time about the current status of the SALT negotiations, since our handling of the two issues with Congress would need to be carefully coordinated. We must recognize, however, that once our proposals were presented to the Chinese, we could only reverse course at high cost to our relations with Peking and to our broader foreign policy interests if the Chinese responded positively.

Supplemental Measures

This scenario could usefully be supplemented between now and November by other measures designed to condition Peking, Taipei and the Congress to the direction in which we were moving. These could include:

—further withdrawals of military personnel from Taiwan;5

—revelation of aircraft and other arms sales to the ROC;

—a U.S. Government science delegation to the PRC led by Frank Press;

—some symbolic act, such as your attendance at a PRC cultural performance at Wolf Trap this summer; and

—one or two Cabinet-level visits to China—e.g., Bergland, Schlesinger, or Kreps.

Some of these measures would be desirable even if we were not moving on central normalization issues. Therefore, although we would wish to review the agenda if Woodcock’s approach did not elicit a sufficiently positive response, we would try to retain enough elements to give a sense of momentum. In that circumstance, we might also want to consider unilateral adjustments in our relations with Taiwan.6

Decision Points

You thus have two “go/no go” decision points. First a decision now whether or not Woodcock should begin negotiations this summer, which will affect the signal Zbig would give during his trip. Second, a decision at a later stage in Woodcock’s talks as to whether or not the results warranted a higher level meeting to complete arrangements and to issue the normalization communique. You would want to inform key Congressional leaders before a Woodcock approach, and we would [Page 360] want to consult a broader Congressional group before a subsequent higher level meeting.7

Timing Factors

The negotiating process with Peking may well be time consuming. Even assuming that Woodcock began concrete discussions with the Chinese this summer and that the Chinese adopted a relatively accommodating attitude, there is a strong possibility that we could not iron out the necessary arrangements in the few months prior to the mid-term elections.8 By moving early, however, we would provide ourselves with a reasonable amount of time to deal with both the Chinese and Congress on normalization before the onset of the 1980 election season. If we waited until after the mid-term elections to present our proposals to Peking, we would not only significantly shorten the available “normalization window,” but we would also increase the likelihood that the intrusion of other issues would force us to suspend, at high risk, our approach to the Chinese or postpone establishment of diplomatic relations with Peking until 1981 or later. In either event, we would want to structure our negotiating schedule so that we would not have to deal intensively with Congress on both SALT and normalization at the same time (see further discussion of SALT below).

Pros and Cons of Moving in This Term

A. Advantages

The considerations that would favor a prompt effort to move ahead on normalization include the following:

Balancing SALT

Assuming that we continue active SALT negotiations with the Soviets this year, balancing moves in our relations with Peking would be highly desirable. Such moves would both reassure the Chinese of their importance to us and would, if successful, demonstrate domestically and abroad that in seeking a SALT agreement with the USSR, we were also taking steps to enhance our strategic position in other ways.

Obviously, the SALT talks should continue to move forward9 at their own pace. At the same time, prolongation of the SALT time schedule should not in itself deter us from moving on China.

Should it appear likely that we could successfully complete our negotiations on both SALT and normalization in approximately the same [Page 361] timeframe, we would need to give careful consideration to our handling of these issues with Congress. Both would face tough going on the Hill, though their opponents would not be identical; a major confrontation on one, or an embarrassing setback, might gravely undercut our ability to present Congress with yet another controversial issue. Conversely, a marked success on either could strengthen our hand in dealing with the other. In considering timing, it is our judgment that a success on PRC normalization is more likely to strengthen our hand on SALT approval, than vice versa.

Therefore, if early Senate action on SALT appeared likely, we would need to factor this into Woodcock’s presentation to the Chinese and possibly adjust the tempo of our negotiations with Peking to avoid having both come before Congress at the same time. We consider it premature, however, to try to resolve the question of precedence.

Positive Climate with China

In terms of our present relations with the PRC, conditions over the coming months will be optimal, at least during your first term, for bringing normalization to a successful conclusion. With only occasional lapses, Peking has moderated its public rhetoric on Taiwan and is laying greater stress than at any time since 1972/73 on its preference for a peaceful solution. In addition, by expanding both official and unofficial contacts with the United States, resuming grain purchases for the first time since 1974, responding to our overtures on long-standing cases involving American relatives and citizens in China, and adopting a more accommodating attitude toward our mission in Peking, the Chinese have helped create the most positive climate in U.S.–PRC relations since the establishment of Liaison Offices in 1973.

Relevance to our Asian Policy

Successful completion of the normalization process would remove one of the major anomalies in our current posture in Asia and enable us—and our Asian allies—to plan for the future with greater assurance. Unavoidably, of course, normalization would deliver a major shock to Taiwan, and this could temporarily increase uncertainties in Asia about the potential consequences of our actions. Under present conditions, however, we believe Taiwan has the political and economic resiliency to adjust successfully to the changed circumstances that normalization would bring. Accordingly, if we acted in a confident, decisive manner, these Asian concerns should quickly dissipate as it became clear that we had acted responsibly and in ways consistent with our continued interest in the future well-being of Taiwan. Over time, improved relations with China would enhance our ability to insure that the basically stable regional military and political situation in Asia continued.

B. Disadvantages

To complete the normalization process would inevitably entail serious risks, and it would require major personal involvement by you to [Page 362] insure a successful outcome. A high degree of coordination would be required in dealing with both Congress and the Chinese. Equally relevant is the likelihood that in the aftermath of the 1978 elections there will be heavy pressure for Congressional action on a variety of other domestic and foreign policy issues, including SALT. These risks include the following factors:

Success Not Assured

Our minimum terms for normalization may be unacceptable to Peking.10 This is particularly so on the matter of arms sales. The Chinese may also quibble over the degree of governmental involvement, however disguised, that would be required to continue our minimally essential ties with Taiwan (discussed below). Accordingly, we cannot count on success, although our chances now are as good as any we are likely to face for the next two years. Moreover, we do not feel that reaching an impasse with the Chinese would compromise our essential relationship with Peking, and by making our approach to the Chinese out of the glare of publicity, the risks of such an impasse would be made more manageable.

Domestic Political Factors

The domestic and foreign policy benefits of normalization would for the most part only come after we have successfully completed the process. Until that time, we would face serious controversy, fueled by exaggerated anxiety over the fate of Taiwan. The prevailing attitude in Congress and the public at large favors the status quo. Behind the scenes, ROC representatives could be expected to play on such sentiments, mobilizing public and Congressional opposition to normalization and portraying this action as “abandonment” of a longstanding friend and ally. The burden, therefore, would be on the Administration to justify our actions.

Publicly, however, ROC leaders might be forced to play down the implications of normalization for Taiwan in order to shore up local morale and protect the island’s investment climate. Once convinced of our determination and ability to complete the process, the ROC would probably become more amenable to working out satisfactory post-normalization arrangements for conducting our unofficial relations.

Nevertheless, die-hard supporters of the Republic of China could be expected to pull out all the stops: constitutional challenges might be mounted against our handling of the U.S.–ROC Defense Treaty (Senator Goldwater, for example, has threatened to initiate impeachment proceedings against any President who by-passes the Senate in termi [Page 363] nating the Defense Treaty); and efforts might be made to block normalization, or to stymie our ability to conduct full-scale relations with Peking, by attaching pernicious riders or amendments to implementing legislation.

Thus, we would need to plan our strategy with Congress carefully. Through advance consultations with Congress, we would need to be assured that we had sufficient votes in both the House and the Senate to fend off obstructionist moves. Our task would be to demonstrate not only that normalization would strengthen our global position, but also that it would lessen prospects for conflict in the area and, in the longer run, promote the continued well-being of the people of Taiwan.

Success in this effort would also depend, in part, on the attitude taken by other Asian countries, especially Japan. Hence, an early consultation process in Asia would have a direct bearing on the domestic debate in this country.

Legal and Constitutional Problems

By withdrawing recognition from the Republic of China as a sovereign government, while continuing to maintain trade and other unofficial relations with the island, we would be creating a situation that has few if any precedents under international law. As a result, the legal consequences of the steps we contemplate taking are in many cases unclear. Actions by both the Executive Branch and Congress would be necessary to construct a new legal framework for dealing with Taiwan that could be reconciled, with minimum awkwardness, with the principles we would have agreed to in normalizing our relations with the PRC. As a minimum, we would probably need:

—legislation creating a non-governmental entity to conduct our “unofficial” relations with Taiwan;

—Congressional action, probably taking the form of an omnibus bill, to protect existing commercial and other arrangements with Taiwan.

As noted earlier, we could face constitutional challenges over various normalization issues, including the manner in which we terminated the U.S.–ROC Mutual Defense Treaty. Although our lawyers are satisfied that termination does not require Congressional action, even supporters of normalization may oppose us on constitutional grounds on this issue. Others, however, have indicated that many in Congress would prefer to have the Executive Branch take the heat off Congress by assuming responsibility for terminating the Treaty.

These issues are under active review by our lawyers. This review will clarify the legal choices available to us, but whatever the choices are, a test of strength with Congress would probably be unavoidable and would shape the final outcome. Our decisions, therefore, would ultimately have to be based on political judgments—and Congressional [Page 364] backing—and legal considerations would be only one contributing factor.

Alternative: Drop Normalization as a First Term Issue

Given the short term costs involved in completing the normalization process, an alternative would be in effect to defer normalization until 1981 or later. The present Chinese mood of “patience” makes deferral seem attractive. This is especially so since in the present benign climate of U.S.–PRC relations, those opposed to cutting diplomatic relations with Taiwan could attack such a move on the grounds that we were already gaining many of the benefits of full normalization and were taking needless risks vis-a-vis Taiwan.

Any deferral of normalization would quickly become evident to the Chinese, but there are some signs that Peking has already reached a relatively pessimistic assessment of our intentions on normalization and has decided that at least for the moment it can live with the status quo. Moreover, it is doubtful that Peking would suddenly disrupt its relations with us as long as our policy remained firmly based on the Shanghai Communique.

Nevertheless, the risks of delay are significant. Above all, we would leave the normalization process vulnerable to many domestic and foreign developments over which we have little or no control. These factors are briefly reviewed below.

Stability on Taiwan

Today there is substantial political stability in Taiwan, due in large measure to the skillful leadership of President Chiang Ching-kuo. This stability, which is critical to our estimate that Taiwan can cope successfully with the effects of normalization, will be less certain once Chiang is gone. Moreover, there are signs of intensifying support among the native Taiwanese for some form of “Taiwan independence,” which over time could call into question the essential phrasing of the Shanghai Communique that “all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China.” Any explicit move by Taiwan in this direction would pose critical policy dilemmas for the United States whenever it occurred. But if it happened before normalization, it might well become an insurmountable obstacle to establishment of diplomatic relations with Peking, with serious consequences for our policy in Asia and elsewhere.

Other Risks

As you know from our earlier studies, there are other uncertainties as well. These include the possibility of changes in Sino-Soviet relations, the intrusion of domestic political factors in China or this [Page 365] country, and the impact of other steps we will be taking in Asia in the meantime, such as further troop withdrawals from Korea.

Costs Vis-a-Vis Peking

Another potential cost of delay is the probability that at a time when Peking is moving rapidly to develop its relations with the outside world, and especially with developed Western countries, we will find our own ability to move ahead with the Chinese in areas such as science and technology agreements, claims/assets, and civil aviation constrained by the absence of diplomatic relations.

Compensatory Measures

There are two ways in which we could seek to minimize these effects:

—by steps designed to demonstrate that our normalization policy remained unchanged;

—and by measures to sustain and if possible enhance our relations with Peking.

Policy Measures

The intent of such measures would be to provide concrete evidence, to Taiwan and others, that our commitment to normalization remained unchanged. At one extreme, these could include downgrading our Embassy in Taipei to a Consulate General or trade office, or even withdrawing recognition from the Republic of China while continuing to maintain some official representation on the island. Such steps have the serious disadvantage that they would be certain to generate political controversy in this country, might well be denounced by Peking, and would lack the compensatory improvements in our relations with Peking that normalization would bring. By making concrete changes in the status quo, however, they would dramatically demonstrate that we were irreversibly committed to altering our relations with Taiwan.

The same purpose could be served, though to a reduced extent, by less drastic measures such as:

—lowering our representation in Taiwan to the Charge level; and

—removing our remaining military personnel from Taiwan.

Steps with Peking

We could also seek ways to consolidate our relations with Peking short of full normalization. Of greatest reciprocal value would be an expansion of trade and exchanges.11 But we could also take other steps to [Page 366] enhance our value to Peking in strategically relevant ways. These would have to be looked at closely, however. Ill-considered measures could give an anti-Soviet cast to our policy and could also, unless reciprocated by Peking, undermine the principle of mutual benefit in our relations with the PRC by, in essence, paying a price to China for the delay in normalization. Nevertheless, depending on the specific circumstances, certain steps might be considered. Possibilities include:

—supporting measures in Congress to make credits available for trade with China (e.g., by exempting China from the JacksonVanik strictures on Eximbank and CCC credits);12

—facilitating the commercial flow of technology to the PRC by giving China the benefit of the doubt on marginal export control cases;13

—testing PRC willingness to expand direct contacts between government agencies, e.g., in areas directly relevant to China’s current development plans;

—exploring possibilities for intelligence exchanges with China;14

—proposing that military attaches be assigned to our respective liaison offices.

Should you decide to defer normalization for your first term, we would study in greater detail the compensatory measures we might wish to adopt in order to make clear that the direction of our policy remained unchanged and to sustain our relations with Peking.


It would be useful to have your guidance prior to Zbig’s trip to Peking so that he could signal the Chinese the direction in which we are likely to move. As you know, Ambassador Woodcock strongly favors a prompt effort to complete normalization. We also favor that course but believe the advantages of moving now must be weighed against the potential short-term consequences for our other domestic and foreign policy priorities.


1. Begin the effort to normalize through a secret approach by Ambassador Woodcock to the Chinese in Peking this summer.15

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a. Proceed in the expectation that the process will not be completed until after the November 1978 elections.

b. Attempt to complete the process before the November elections.

2. Postpone normalization as an issue for your first term.17

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Office, Outside the System File, Box 50, Chron: 5/78. Secret; Nodis; Sensitive. Printed from a copy that does not bear Brown’s initials. Attached but not printed is an “illustrative and tentative” calendar that lays out various steps that might occur, month by month, as the United States and China normalized relations. The calendar anticipated that during June “COCOM approval obtained to differentiate in technology transfers to USSRPRC: sale to one does not set precedent of sale to other.” In the margin next to this point, Carter wrote, “Doubt advisability of PRC preference over SU [Soviet Union].”
  2. Carter inserted here the word “official.”
  3. In the margin, Carter wrote, “firm commitment from PRC not to contradict.”
  4. In the margin, Carter wrote, “other than US/ROC interrelationship, what is required?”
  5. Carter wrote, “OK” in the margin next to the first, third, and last points.
  6. In the margin, Carter wrote, “OK.”
  7. In the margin, Carter wrote, “This is OK.”
  8. In the margin, Carter wrote, “PRC should understand US political schedule.”
  9. Carter underlined “should continue to move forward,” and in the margin, wrote, “yes.”
  10. Carter underlined “may be unacceptable to Peking,” and in the margin, wrote, “so be it.”
  11. Carter underlined “expansion of trade and exchanges,” and in the margin, wrote, “ok.”
  12. Carter drew a question mark in the margin next to this paragraph. The JacksonVanik amendment to the 1974 Trade Act denied most-favored-nation trade status and trade credits to countries with non-market economies that restricted emigration.
  13. In the margin next to this and the following point, Carter wrote, “OK.”
  14. Carter drew a question mark in the margin next to this and the following point.
  15. Carter made a checkmark in the margin next to option 1, indicating his approval.
  16. In the margin next to the “sub-options,” Carter wrote, “either ok—depends on PRC.” He drew an arrow to suboption a and wrote, “Prefer.”
  17. In the margin next to option 2, Carter wrote, “no.”