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NSC internal memo, Michel Oksenberg to Zbigniew Brzezinski, May 25, 1978

Michel Oksenberg was a China specialist on leave from the University of Michigan serving on the National Security Council staff. He wrote to his boss, National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski on his impressions of the trip Brzezinski had just made to Beijing. Oksensberg accompanied Brzezinski on the trip. Among the key points in his memo is the statement that Chinese leaders "tacitly" accepted that the United States would continue to sell arms to Taiwan.

May 25, 1978


  • Appraisal of the China Trip


The China trip met the objectives we had intended. Without question, we leave China with a substantially better relationship than existed prior to your three days in Peking. The better climate was created, in part, through your presentations and toasts. But perhaps more importantly, you generated an improved atmosphere by arousing Chinese expectations of movement on normalization and of American resolve in dealing with the Soviet Union. To sustain this improved atmosphere, therefore, will require careful attention to what we say about our relations with China, a carefully considered and forthcoming Woodcock presentation in June, and a realistically tough-minded policy toward the Soviet Union.

Chinese Impressions of You

One of our major objectives was to give the Chinese some exposure to you and your views, and thereby to inform them of the quality of a man whose policy preferences are of great consequence to them. You made a favorable impression simply by being yourself. The Chinese admire people who think strategically and conceptually, and you clearly demonstrated those qualities. Through your strong defense of our Korean policy and through persistence in seeking to rebut their statement concerning “If the President makes up his mind,” you demonstrated an inner toughness and willingness to defend your views. The nature of your presentation also conveyed to them that you have an open and precise mind. Your youthful spirit and zest for life runs counter to disciplined, tempered Chinese mannerisms, but are characteristics which the Chinese admire in Americans—precisely because of their absence among Chinese. They know innovation flows from enthusiasm.

On the negative side, by no means outweighing the positive side, I suspect you came across as somewhat vain, perhaps overly confident, and somewhat prone to verbosity.

Cy behaved with greater dignity than you, but his bemusement with the Chinese was also evident. What the Chinese most appreciated, I think, is that you clearly take them seriously. You established the basis for a long-term, rewarding relationship with the Chinese. You were totally convincing in your respect for them.

World Affairs

I was particularly impressed by these aspects of your discussions on world affairs:

—As you, I was struck by the strong convergence of views about the major source of instability in the world today: the Soviet Union.3 There is utility in stressing publicly this fundamental convergence of views. But we must harbor no private illusion that the Chinese see this convergence as enduring. Indeed, I was even more struck on this trip than in August with the Chinese determination to remain an independent force in world affairs and to join us only superficially to counter the Soviet threat. We fully wish to cooperate with China as equals in the creation of a pluralistic world order. The Chinese believe the quest for a world order is quixotic. They wish to position themselves, as in a horse race, so that our strength ebbs—which they see as inevitable—and as Soviet power peaks, they will be in a position to surge forward.

Hence, I caution against becoming overly exuberant about the potentialities of the Sino-American relationship. Our approach should be to enmesh the Chinese in the maintenance of the global equilibrium, so that their own interests and aspirations will gradually change. At the same time, we must be aware that our capacity to alter the Chinese world view—rooted as it is so deeply in Chinese tradition—is likely to prove only marginally effective.

—I was also struck that the Chinese were much more relaxed about American resolve vis-a-vis the Soviets this time than they had been in August. I had anticipated that a major objective of the Chinese would be to lecture us and to scorn our weakness. They did not. Fortunately, our actions in Zaire provided a decisive backdrop for your visit, and the evolving situation in Afghanistan remained sufficiently murky that the Chinese could not dwell on this issue. At the same time, the forthcomingness of your position and the graphic description of the new weapons we will be deploying discouraged any efforts to lecture. However, you established a standard against which future American actions will be evaluated that may be hard to attain.

—It is clear that the areas of overlapping interest are in Europe and what we call the Third World. Neither of us has an adequate strategy for preventing Soviet meddling, and we both recognize our inadequacies. I continue to believe that we should expand and deepen our consultations on Third World problems. In particular, I would recommend that the State Department, the Defense Department, [less than 1 line not declassified] develop more extensive contacts with the Liaison Office for briefing purposes on matters of mutual concern. And we should encourage Woodcock to seek similar consultations in Peking. In fact, in your thank you letters to Hua, Teng, and Huang, which I will draft, you might wish to mention this point.

—As to discussion of regional problems, I was particularly struck by these considerations:

Korea. Both sides have an underlying interest in stability, but for different reasons, each of us must provide reassurances to our adversarial allies. China still competes with the Soviets for influence in North Korea, while we must reassure the South in part to comfort Japan. As a result, the real differences between us at this point are less than the rhetoric suggests. But we harm the Chinese cause by saying this. Hence, in our public statements, it is best to ignore the genuine commonality of our views.

Southeast Asia. The Chinese concern about Vietnam is extremely great, certainly much more than I had anticipated. China now faces threats both to its south and its north. This helps establish the basis for an accommodation on normalization, for the Chinese hardly wish to face a security threat on three sides, and they appreciate the restraining role we play in Taiwan. The Chinese concern, I think, should lead us to stop saying that we wish to normalize relations with Vietnam. State should be instructed to delete this sentence from its standard descriptions of U.S. policy in Southeast Asia.

South Asia. Our interests in this region almost totally coincide. As followup to your visit, perhaps when Desai visits Washington, we should strongly encourage him to dispatch his Foreign Minister to Peking; Indian reluctance to do so can be largely attributed to fears of offending Moscow. We should also fully involve the PRC in our consultations with Pakistan and Iran concerning Afghanistan.

Africa. Chinese lecturing on Africa was less harsh than I had expected. On the other hand, I was disappointed by the Chinese unwillingness to respond to specific questions about their relations with Somalis and with the relevant parties in southern Africa. I believe the inadequacy of the discussion partly grows out of Chinese impotence in Africa; they simply have no power to project into the region and they know it. In addition, because of your own style of presentation, the Chinese realized that if they lectured to us, you would come right back with suggestions as to what they could do.

Mid-East. I am concerned about your presentation on the PRC-Saudi links. The only thing that will let you off the hook is that the Chinese are unlikely to do anything with the Israelis, and you can always say that what was implied was reciprocal moves toward our respective allies.

—The difference between your presentation and Vance’s was, of course, strikingly great. You have given the Chinese a stake in your own political success in the U.S. By so doing, I suspect you have become their preferred interlocutor, and if any parallel actions are to be secured from them in world affairs or if any concessions are to be extracted from them concerning normalization, they clearly will prefer to give you the credit for it. While the Chinese will seek to play upon your differences with Cy to benefit both you and them, do not consider this a personal triumph. Do not think you have gained any “credit” in Peking. They will use you, and cast you aside when you no longer suit their pleasure.


While we must continue to say that your trip was not a negotiating one, the fact is to the contrary. However, you were able to achieve progress precisely because it was called “non-negotiation.” The Chinese negotiate best when the illusion is created that everyone is sticking firmly to their principles. Here are the highlights of the discussion—though we must not call the results “progress:”

—The Chinese demonstrated greater eagerness to move forward on normalization, and indeed implied a certain impatience with our sluggish response to Hua’s cryptic message to Carter of last November.

—More clearly than before, the Chinese link their willingness to cooperate with us in security matters with normalization.

—Hua’s and Teng’s presentation tacitly revealed that the Chinese understand and accept that we intend to sustain an arms sales relationship with Taipei after normalization. This is a major step forward in the unfolding of the Chinese position. When you study Hua’s and Teng’s remarks, you must look at this section extremely closely. Upon reading the transcripts, I did not find the differences between Hua and Teng as striking as we had initially thought. Hua’s remarks elaborated upon Teng’s remarks in a carefully orchestrated sequence. You elicited the sequence through your own brilliant and subtle presentation concerning a “historically transitional era.”

—In effect, the Chinese offered as a choice if we wish normalization at this point—either to continue arms sales to Taiwan with no Chinese statement on peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue, or no further U.S. arms sales coupled with a Chinese declaration of peaceful intent. I believe that there is still some give on the Chinese position concerning the nature of their unilateral statements, should we go the “arms sales” route. That is, we may be able to negotiate over the type and quantity of weapons we will sell to Taiwan, in exchange for some indication of restraint on their part.

—Since your discussions moved the dialogue significantly further than we had anticipated, we must now rethink the nature of Woodcock’s presentation. In order to sustain the momentum, he cannot simply restate what you have already covered. My own suggestion is that he should table a draft communique while setting out the same formulation that you had outlined in Peking.

—During the very sensitive period into which we are entering, our public statements on normalization must be meticulously crafted. You must make absolutely certain that the President understands the subtleties of the situation and is prepared to use the right rhetoric. The kinds of indiscretions that have occurred concerning the Middle East probably cannot be tolerated in the China discussions. I will do a memorandum summarizing the formula to which the President must rigorously adhere.


The Chinese are ready for expanded economic and cultural contacts. Huberman’s conversations give rise to some optimism, again as long as we stress that in the absence of normalization we recognize these contacts will be limited. I am confident that a Frank Press visit will take place.

The Chinese Domestic Scene

The Hua–Teng Relationship: Differences in style and emphases were evident. Perhaps most significantly, Teng referred to Mao but once or twice, while Hua referred to Mao repeatedly, as if to demonstrate his intimate relationship with the late Chairman. Neither did Teng refer to Hua, although Hua approvingly referred to Teng’s conversations with you on several occasions. Teng projects confidence and toughness. He rarely consults with his aides, while Hua on several occasions consulted with Huang Hua and Wang Hai-jung.

Yet, I did not feel these differences suggest a tension-ridden relationship. For the time being, at least, the two together provide an adequate and even strong leadership team—Teng, the asskicker, and Hua, the reconciler.

Hua was more impressive than I had anticipated. Nothing I have read about him or written about him adequately captures the man. Either consciously or because of innate qualities, he has some of the bearing that a Chinese emperor is supposed to possess. In our society, these qualities are judged effeminate—softspokenness, delicate mannerisms, a relaxation and slowness in his personal movements which suggests an inner serenity of mind. He very much sought to be gracious toward you and to observe propriety. In short, Hua has many of the mannerisms of a Confucian gentleman.

But in a quiet way, he also revealed his inner toughness, a self-awareness of the position he holds, and the dignity that the office bestows upon him.

He had been well briefed for his meeting with you, and handled his brief impressively. Clearly, his dwelling on foreign affairs exclusively was a deliberate Chinese effort to add to his authority in our eyes. This is an important consideration, for it now appears that the normalization agreement will have to have his imprimatur. Teng may help to write Hua’s script, but Hua will have to be willing to enunciate it.

In short, I sense the Hua–Teng relationship to be more collaborative and complementary than competitive, with each possessing skills, traits, and resources the other lacks. We should not assume that Teng is in charge. We are dealing with a duumvirate.

The Chinese Domestic Scene

Three days in China on an official delegation does not afford much contact with the society. However, I did walk in the neighborhoods surrounding the Guest House from 5:30 or 6:00 a.m. to about 7:15 a.m. every morning. These strolls reminded me once again of China’s poverty and the drabness of life in Peking. And one must remember that Peking and Shanghai are by far the wealthiest localities in China with the highest standards of living in the country.

The single most striking aspect of Peking was the absence of slogans pasted or painted all over town. “De-Maoification” is proceeding in a gradual but persistent manner.

Yet, my morning walks did not yield a sense that China had entered an era of genuine political stability. Politics in China’s totalitarian society has been the major vehicle through which the populace can act out their inevitable emotional tensions. The periods of political turmoil during the past decade—the Red Guards, the criticism of Lin, the smashing of the “Gang of Four,” and so on—provided opportunities for emotional release in a society which lacks opportunities for people to express their frustrations in private ways—through sports, attending the theatre, reading, and so on.

Frustrations continue to accumulate in China today, and if the leadership ever falters or becomes divided, there will be ample tinder to spark another era of turbulence. China’s entry into the modern world has been a convulsive one—periods of tranquility and growth punctuated by periods of social ferment and unrest. My morning walks convinced me the convulsive quality of China will persist.

The foreign policy implication of this insight is that the U.S. cannot place great reliance upon China even for the maintenance of stability in East Asia. While a strong and secure China is in our interest, I continue to harbor doubts as to the extent to which China ever really will become genuinely secure and strong.

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