Structure and Scope of the Foreign Relations Series

This volume, part of a subseries of the Foreign Relations series that documents the most important issues in the foreign policy of the administration of Jimmy Carter, covers U.S. policy toward China from 1977 to 1980. Readers interested in U.S. security policy should also consult Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, volume IV, National Security Policy. For more on U.S. relations with a specific country or region, readers should consult the relevant geographically-focused volumes in the Foreign Relations Carter subseries. Additional documentation on foreign aid and human rights may be found in Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, volume II, Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs. U.S. international economic policy is covered in Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, volume III, Foreign Economic Policy. Finally, for the organization of the foreign policy making process, readers should consult Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, volume XXVIII, Organization and Management of Foreign Policy.

Focus of Research and Principles of Selection for Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, Volume XIII

The Carter administration’s foreign policy toward China was characterized by significant achievements as well as by bureaucratic infighting. December 15, 1978 marked the most dramatic achievement when, following secret negotiations, the United States and the People’s Republic of China announced that they were establishing formal diplomatic relations. As the political relationship between China and the United States improved, economic and cultural ties became more robust. Although a shared animosity toward the Soviet Union provided much of the impetus for greater cooperation between the United States and China, leaders in Washington and Beijing increasingly felt that expanded interactions, if well-managed, could produce tremendous benefits for both countries. However, the closer relationship between Washington and Beijing came at a cost: the severance of both official relations and the U.S. defense treaty with the Republic of China (Taiwan), a government with which the United States had close political, military, and commercial ties. American officials showed continuing concern for Taiwan partly because of its ideological, strategic, and economic importance in the Cold War, partly to maintain the credibility of U.S. international commitments, and, at least among some, because they felt [Page X] that the United States had a responsibility to ensure that it did not destroy the opportunity of the people on Taiwan to seek a peaceful future.

When Carter took office in January 1977, a significant improvement in relations between China and the United States was far from inevitable. In the aftermath of Nixon and Kissinger’s frustrated attempt to seek normalization during Nixon’s abbreviated second administration, the currents of American politics appeared less favorable to such a policy. Among Republicans, the increasingly powerful conservative wing, led by such figures as Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater, rejected the notion that the United States should abandon the alliance with Taiwan for the sake of improved relations with a Communist country. Within the Carter administration, the President and Cyrus Vance wondered whether Nixon and Kissinger had made too many concessions in their effort to improve relations with China. Initially, Carter was distrustful of China, and believed that his predecessors had abased themselves during their negotiations with that country. Vance opposed any policy that improved relations with China at the expense of US-Soviet détente, which he saw as the best hope for a more stable and peaceful world. Furthermore, Richard Holbrooke, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, sought to establish official diplomatic relations between the United States and Vietnam, a policy that had broader foreign policy implications due to the growing animosity between Vietnam and China. In contrast, Zbigniew Brzezinski and his aide Michel Oksenberg, the leading China specialist on the NSC staff, pushed for Sino-American normalization. They argued that American hesitation might squander a historic opportunity to establish better relations between two of the world’s leading countries, whose enmity had threatened the stability of the international system just a few years earlier. Furthermore, Brzezinski was skeptical about the solidity of détente, and believed that a partnership with China would make the Soviets feel less secure and thereby improve their behavior. At the Pentagon, Harold Brown’s desire to prevent a renewed Sino-Soviet alliance led him to join Brzezinski in support of normalization. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, concerned about the security of Taiwan and the credibility of American commitments, were more skeptical of Sino-American normalization than was the civilian leadership at DoD. Although some parts of the U.S. Government sought to address human rights in the Sino-American dialogue, this issue was generally subordinated to the effort to improve relations between the United States and China.

Despite their disagreements, members of the Carter administration decided that the United States should adhere to the Shanghai Communiqué, in which the United States had declared that it did not challenge the notion that there was but one China, but also expressed an [Page XI] interest in the peaceful resolution of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves. During the preparations for Vance’s August 1977 visit to China, Carter chose three guidelines to govern the U.S. negotiating position throughout the normalization talks: first, improvement of Sino-American relations should be reciprocal; second, the United States would not approach China as a supplicant; third, the United States would seek to maintain the confidence of the people on Taiwan that their future would be prosperous and tranquil. Along these lines, the United States informed Taiwan’s government that although it was beginning a process that might lead to normalization of relations with the People’s Republic of China, it would not agree to terms that would undermine Taiwan’s security and well-being.

During late 1977 and early 1978, other concerns, especially the domestic political effort necessary to ratify the Panama Canal Treaties, delayed the push for normalization with China. Meanwhile, U.S. officials sought increased Sino-American economic, technological, and cultural exchanges. They also examined means of reducing U.S. defense links with Taiwan and increasing those with China. By the time of Brzezinski’s May 1978 visit to Beijing, Carter had decided to seek normalized relations with China during his first term. The President believed that for domestic political reasons, normalization would be difficult until after the 1978 midterm elections, yet needed to be accomplished before late 1979 due to the 1980 presidential election. This left a window of about one year to realize one of Carter’s major foreign policy goals.

Brzezinski’s visit went well. Chinese officials seemed pleased by his attitude toward the Soviet Union, and his expression of the Carter administration’s interest in moving toward normalization. American officials were particularly impressed by China’s tacit acceptance of continued U.S. arms sales to Taiwan after normalization. Following Brzezinski’s visit, Carter agreed to Vance’s proposal of a mid-December 1978 target date for a public announcement that the United States would recognize the People’s Republic of China. He also affirmed Vance’s proposition that normalization should precede the SALT ratification debate in the 1979 legislative calendar. This cleared the way for Leonard Woodcock—communicating with Washington via the “Voyager” backchannel, which circumvented all but a few senior officials—to begin confidential negotiations in Beijing on normalizing relations. The negotiations reached fruition on December 15, 1978. As expected, the normalization announcement resulted in public outrage in Taiwan and from R.O.C. supporters in the United States. Meanwhile, Taiwan and China battled over assets in Washington—such as the former embassy building—that had belonged to the government of the Republic of China.

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Following normalization, Deng visited the United States in January 1979. Perhaps the most remarkable moment of the trip—aside from his charismatic wooing of the American public—occurred during a meeting with Carter at which time the Chinese leader expressed an intention to attack Vietnam. Carter attempted to dissuade Deng. This discussion was the culmination of the growing importance of Vietnam in Sino-American relations over the course of 1978, as Chinese officials had become increasingly annoyed with U.S. efforts to improve relations with that regime. Following the Chinese incursion into Vietnam, in February 1979, the U.S. rebuke was mild.

Although the governments of China and the United States negotiated an agreement over longstanding financial claims and disputed assets, a number of disputes made the relationship more contentious over the course of 1979. The Chinese government expressed displeasure with the Taiwan Relations Act, which Carter signed into law on April 10, 1979 after Congress passed it with large majorities. In addition, Sino-American relations were buffeted by arguments over economic issues and China’s view that the United States was pursuing too conciliatory a policy toward the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, Walter Mondale’s visit to China in August 1979 was an important milestone, and the two countries made progress on economic and security issues. American officials continued to observe Chinese politics with great interest, especially Deng’s consolidation of power.

In the fall of 1979, planning for Harold Brown’s trip to China began amid bureaucratic struggles within the U.S. government. Brown, with Brzezinski’s support, hoped to promote Sino-American cooperation on security and intelligence issues. He anticipated such collaboration might signal to the Soviets that they should give greater respect to U.S. interests. In contrast, Vance opposed a trip by Brown in the near future, arguing that the United States was in danger of pursuing an unbalanced policy that would reduce American leverage and encourage the Soviets to act more irresponsibly. Carter approved Brown’s visit, but noted that the United States would continue its publicly announced policy of having no substantive military relationship with China. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, in December 1979, transformed Carter’s view of Brown’s January 1980 visit. The President decided, over the objections of Vance and Brown, to seek closer Sino-American military cooperation, announcing his change of view in a National Security Council meeting on January 2. The two countries collaborated on a number of other issues, including the boycott of the Olympic Games in Moscow, the response to the Iranian seizure of American hostages, and the rapid development of commercial and scientific relations. The United States decided to treat China according to more lenient export control regulations than the Soviet Union. But for the most part, during [Page XIII] the last year of his presidency, Carter was content to consolidate existing Sino-American initiatives rather than pursue new achievements.

Like all recent Foreign Relations volumes, the emphasis of this volume is on policy formulation, rather than the implementation of policy or day-to-day diplomacy. As in other volumes in the Carter subseries, the National Security Council and the Department of State are the key players in the policy making process; in this volume, however, they are joined by the Department of Defense.

Note: During the Carter administration, the United States government changed its system for romanizing the Chinese language. Whereas the editors have retained the romanization in the original documents as transcribed (whether Pinyin, Wade-Giles, or southern Chinese dialects), the editorial content uses Pinyin.


The editor wishes to acknowledge the assistance of officials at the Jimmy Carter Library, especially Ceri McCarron, Brittany Parris, David Stanhope, and James Yancey. Thanks are also due to Nancy Smith, the Director of the Presidential Materials Staff at the National Archives and Records Administration, and to the Central Intelligence Agency for arranging access to the Carter Library materials scanned for the Remote Archive Capture project. The Historical Staff of the Central Intelligence Agency were accommodating in arranging full access to the files of the Central Intelligence Agency, and Sandy Meagher was helpful in providing access to Department of Defense materials. The editor also thanks the staff at the National Archives and Records Administration facility in College Park, Maryland, for their valuable assistance.

The editor collected, with the assistance of Madalina Lee, and selected the documentation and edited the volume under the supervision of Erin Mahan and M. Todd Bennett, successively Chiefs of the Asia and Africa division, and Edward C. Keefer, then General Editor of the Foreign Relations series. The volume was reviewed by M. Todd Bennett and William B. McAllister in his capacity as Acting General Editor. Chris Tudda coordinated the declassification review under the supervision of Susan C. Weetman and Carl Ashley, successive Chiefs of the Declassification and Publishing Division. Rita Baker and Stephanie Eckroth performed the technical and copy editing. Do Mi Stauber Indexing Services prepared the index.

David P. Nickles, Ph.D.