105. Memorandum From Michael Armacost and Michel Oksenberg of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski) and the President’s Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs (Aaron)1


  • East and Southeast Asian Policy

The key strategic issue confronting the United States concerns our relationship with the Soviet Union. We must search for a proper blend of constraints upon disruptive acts (i.e., classical methods of power balancing plus arms control agreements) and inducements for cooperative policies (e.g., facilitating the flow of technology). The development of those instrumentalities requires globally coordinated, joint efforts with Japan and Western Europe and the enticement of other states to assist in our effort. We also must maintain and acquire the leverage and incentive to propel the Soviets in desired directions. No policy in any region of the world makes sense unless it is related to this broad strategic aim. This is not to suggest that we do not have other concerns, such as human rights. Nor is our relationship with the Soviets exclusively military in character. Rather, our policy in any region must be related to an overarching, coherent strategy for gradually transforming the nature of the Soviet challenge.

We are frankly alarmed—nearly a month into the Administration—that this approach is sorely lacking in Asia. We have embarked on major initiatives in Korea and Vietnam. We are beginning a major evaluation of the Philippine base issue.2 The first two issues we fasten upon in our dialogue with the PRC involve settlement of financial claims and nuclear proliferation. All of these moves have been considered in a disjointed fashion, with domestic political considerations primarily determining the approach.

We remind you of an obvious fact: despite the region’s obvious economic and strategic importance, the American record in East and Southeast Asia over the past forty years has been a tragic and misguided one. There are two root causes. First, our East Asian policies typically have been an outgrowth of domestic political concerns, have not been [Page 368] well integrated with a global approach to our national security concerns, and have frequently received priority considerations only after it was too late, and events in the area forced themselves upon us in a consuming fashion. Second, we have never closely calibrated our military will and capacity on the one hand with our objectives on the other. We have either over-committed our strength in pursuit of minor objectives, thereby arousing enormous hostility and leaving a legacy of enmity; or we have allowed strategy to overwhelm policy—as in Vietnam—increasing our commitment even as we lost sight of our aims; or we have maintained insufficient force to support our goals—thereby projecting an image of innocence and naivete.

From throughout the region—from Tokyo to Peking, Taipei, Singapore, Canberra, and Jakarta—come signs that the leaders in the region fear we are repeating the latter pattern: While we have reaffirmed verbal commitments to the area, in fact Asia enjoys a low priority. This is perceived in our eagerness to reduce our military presence, compared to a beefing up of our European forces; by the possible limitations upon arms sales to such countries as Indonesia and Pakistan; and by the public advocacy of human rights issues in an area where the concept of individualism is an alien one.

We cannot respond to these concerns simply with a renewed burst of interest and activity in the area. We need rather a coherent policy to replace that sense of drift which currently prevails. Nor would we underestimate the difficulties of defining a comprehensive set of regional policy guidelines.

—Today Asia remains an area of baffling complexity and potential turbulence. Regional policies are understandably elusive. Asia is not a unitary cultural zone. Pan-regional sentiments do not have deep roots. There are a few regional institutions.

—Two of the world’s major powers, Japan and China, are Asian; a third, the Soviet Union, has a vast Asian domain and a rising Asian population. And yet the center of gravity in our own relationship with the USSR and, to some extent, Japan, lies outside Asia, though our approach to each has its Asian dimension. Even with Peking, the effectiveness of our global efforts to counter the USSR provides the strategic basis for constructive bilateral relations.

—Consequently, our policies in Asia cannot be isolated from our performance in other regions. But they cannot be derived by analogy from our experiences elsewhere, or deduced from the simple homilies about containment. Rather, in Asia, we must adjust our global policy to the unique features of the regional environment.

One such feature is the emergence of a rudimentary equilibrium among the major powers. None is currently in a position to achieve a dominant position through decisive action. The Soviet Union’s military [Page 369] power in Asia is growing slowly and its ultimate ambitions are unclear. But its political relations with virtually every country in the region (save Vietnam) are in disrepair; its economic leverage in the region is negligible; its ideological influence has atrophied; its strategic concept (the Asian collective security system) has found few adherents; its representatives display little cultural empathy for Asians; its diplomacy is generally heavy-handed.

The fact that the Soviets are playing a relatively weak hand in the area is advantageous to us. But it offers little grounds for complacency, given its improving position in other areas. From a global standpoint, we have a stake in preserving limits on Soviet access to Asian political and security arrangements. Yet we have not yet addressed the question: What practical guidelines flow from this general concept? What limits should we seek to impose on U.S. (and Japanese?) involvement in the development of Siberian resources? On Soviet entrée to naval facilities in Southeast Asia and the Southwest Pacific? Should we continue to “tilt” toward China when it comes to dealing with Asian regional issues of concern to both the USSR and PRC?

Another concern is China policy. When we provided the enabling conditions in 1969–1971 for a better relationship with China (the Guam Doctrine3 and the principles of the Shanghai Communique4 dealing with Taiwan), the Chinese looked upon us as an effective counterweight against the Soviets and we could secure leverage through them vis-a-vis the Soviets. Now there are risks that as our initial policy moves toward Korea, the Philippines, and possibly Vietnam may depreciate the currency of our strategic value to the Chinese, thereby complicating the process of generating new momentum in our relations with Peking. It is scarcely encouraging to discover that as the Carter Administration’s policy toward Korea begins to take shape, the Chinese have sent 24 MIG–19s to North Korea. If we are a determined adversary, committed to maintain stability, Peking will help maintain stability on the Peninsula. If our commitment seems shaky, the Chinese will position themselves to help pick up the pieces.

So here is the problem: You have asked us to move ahead with individual country PRMs: Korea,5 the Philippines, China,6 and Micro[Page 370]nesia,7 and to prepare for Fukuda’s visit.8 But we believe these individual efforts must be related to a larger regional and global design. For East Asia, our regional approach must depend fundamentally upon our relations with Japan and China. An effective relationship with both Japan and China presupposes an active U.S. involvement elsewhere in the region. Unfortunately, our Asian policy is taking shape not as a result of conscious decisions but as a by-product of unintegrated actions. We do not propose another larger Asian PRM; we are overloaded with the country studies now underway. We do, however, feel the need for some extended conversation with you to ascertain your sense of the larger mosaic and global strategic design, so that we may be better equipped to respond to the regional and country problems we are now addressing:

—Should we attempt to draw closely to China as a means of enhancing our leverage over the Soviet Union or, do we feel our leverage vis-a-vis the USSR is sufficient and that improvement of our ties with Peking would jeopardize efforts with the Soviets on SALT, MBFR, etc? Are we willing to risk a possible loss of leverage on both the Soviets and Chinese should Moscow and Peking improve their relations prior to our normalizing relations with Peking?

—What are the implications of alternative ways of drawing down our ground force presence in Korea and handling base negotiations with the Philippines on our relations with Japan, China, and the Soviet Union?

—What possible changes in Japan’s security policy may be called for should the Soviets continue to extend the “reach” of their military power in the Pacific?

—Should we continue to attempt to limit Soviet access to Asian security and political arrangements? Or should we adopt a more even-handed approach toward the USSR and China on regional Asian political issues?

—Does the U.S. retain significant strategic and economic interests in Southeast Asia? Or can our relationship with that part of the world benefit from a more prolonged period of benign neglect?

Not only we, but Holbrooke and Gleysteen at State and Abramowitz and DOD also feel that an informal conversation with you, based on this paper and the questions we raise, would be most helpful to this work. In short, Zbig and David, the PRM process demands more [Page 371] initial intellectual conceptualization than is now occurring, and the key Asian types in government wish more insight into your own thinking as we proceed in our work. We therefore request a 30-minute session with you at your earliest convenience.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Far East, Armacost Chron File, Box 2, 2/18–28/77. Secret. Sent for action.
  2. A reference to PRM 14. See Document 291.
  3. Also known as the Nixon Doctrine. Nixon, in remarks to reporter on July 25, 1969, in Guam, articulated his belief that while the United States would honor its commitments in Asia, nations in the region would need to assume greater responsibility for their military defense. For the text of the news conference, see Public Papers: Nixon, 1969, pp. 544–556.
  4. The Shanghai Communiqué, signed by Nixon and Mao Zedong on February 27, 1972, laid the groundwork for normalization on relations with the People’s Republic of China. For the text, see Public Papers: Nixon, 1972, pp. 376–379.
  5. Reference is to PRM 13, which is scheduled for publication in Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. XIV, Korea; Japan.
  6. Reference is to PRM 24. See Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. XIII, China, Document 24.
  7. Reference is to PRM 19, Micronesian Status Negotiations, February 15, which is scheduled for publication in Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. XXV, United Nations; Law of the Sea.
  8. Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda visited the United States March 20–23.