While the past decade of Sino-American relations has been largely constructive, the ten years have not been on a steady incline. Rather, there have been two strong forward spurts, from spring 1971 through May 1973, and from May 1978 through early 1980. The relationship has also endured two periods of some acrimony and erosion: from the fall of 1975 to late 1976 and from mid-1980 to the effort to stabilize the relationship reflected in the communiqué on arms sales to Taiwan that was agreed in August 1982. In addition to the periods of rapid forward movement and retrogression, several periods are best portrayed through metaphors such as "plateaus" or "mixed pictures." Even the best periods were punctuated by moments of doubt and uncertainty, while the phases of deterioration were constrained by a common desire to limit the erosion and to preserve a more positive public facade than the private exchanges warranted.

The ebb and flow of Sino-American relations merits closer scrutiny to illuminate the forces at work. What produces a forward surge? What halts it? What initiates a downturn? What contains it? A historical review of the past decade, in sum, reveals the interests, objectives, and limits which have inhered in the relationship. The account reveals a subtle interplay among three factors: the state of play in the Sino-Soviet-American triangle, the Taiwan issue, and the domestic political setting in China and the United States.


Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger have detailed the subtle maneuvers in which both sides intermittently engaged from early 1969 through the spring of 1971.1 The story is by now a familiar one. Richard Nixon came to office privately determined to alter America's relations with China. Nixon's travels in Asia and conversations with world leaders such as Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s had convinced him of the increasing costs which the United States was paying due to its hostile relations with China, and he saw the opportunities which the Sino-Soviet rupture offered. He also came to office determined to reduce the ground combat role of Americans in Vietnam, a task originally undertaken to help contain the expansion of Chinese influence in Southeast Asia. Nixon faced a delicate challenge reconciling these twin objectives, for a swift, heralded rush toward the Chinese could have been misinterpreted in communist countries as a sign of weakness and lack of resolve, as yielding to one of Hanoi's principal backers. A precipitate American opening to China might have emboldened the North Vietnamese, not encouraged them to wind down the war.

Moreover, at least at the outset of his Administration, Nixon apparently did not clearly perceive the domestic political benefits to be derived from a move toward China. In 1969, President Nixon probably was more aware of the costs a move to China would have among the Republican Right; his career had impressed upon him the precise strength of the authorities on Taiwan in American politics and exactly which American politicians owed obligations to them. Only about midway into his first term, as his global strategy jelled, did the domestic benefits to be reaped from a spectacular opening to China begin to come into focus, as well as the risks of delay should political rivals journey to Beijing before him. Now, over a decade later, it is easy to forget the pervasive, often intense enmity toward China felt throughout the executive branch in the late 1960s, sustained by the hostile missions toward China with which most agencies were charged. In this political environment, any movement toward China had to be gradual and subtle, particularly since the Chinese reaction could not be known.

As a result, the Nixon Administration moved cautiously forward on several fronts from early 1969 on. It gradually prepared both the executive branch and American public opinion for a change in policy, particularly in the way the Administration spoke of China and Sino-American relations. It slowly eased travel and trade restrictions. Finally, it sought to communicate its aspirations directly to Beijing through Pakistani and Romanian intermediaries.

Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai found themselves in an equally delicate situation. We lack memoirs or similar evidence which reveal precisely when Mao began to conceive of an American opening, but inferential evidence points to late 1968, after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.2 At that point, Chinese extremism during the two years of the Cultural Revolution had seriously isolated Beijing in world affairs, while Chinese vulnerability to Soviet military forces along the Sino-Soviet border, which had begun to be built up in the mid-1960s, was assuming threatening proportions. By autumn 1968, too, the course of the Vietnam War probably had taught the entire Chinese leadership an important lesson, namely that the United States had no particular desire to become embroiled in a war with China. In 1964-65, although Mao probably had already come to this conclusion, other Chinese leaders apparently believed Washington was willing to widen the war. The way the United States subsequently prosecuted the war underscored Washington's desire to avoid another Korea-a lesson not lost on the Chinese leadership. Thus, by late 1968, in Chinese eyes the Soviet Union and the United States had at least become coequal dangers to Chinese national security, and to some Chinese-the Chairman included-the Soviet Union clearly posed the greater danger.

Still, the evidence suggests, a protracted debate ensued among the top leaders in Beijing as to whether China should pursue a policy of rough equidistance toward Moscow and Washington or tilt toward the United States.3 If the posture was equidistance, was the posture to be equal hostility or a balanced effort to improve relations with both? If a tilt to the United States, then how far was the tilt to be?

Only haltingly were these questions settled. Driving the debate was the need to respond to the ominous signs that Moscow was considering military action against China, made credible by border clashes of considerable intensity in the spring and then late summer of 1969. Although Nixon and Kissinger briefly feared the Chinese might yield to these Soviet pressures, especially following Kosygin's September 1969 visit to Beijing, by year's end Mao and Zhou had understood the Nixon Administration's initiatives to seek a dialogue.4 They had concluded that an American connection would offer them a counterweight against the Soviet Union, would help open doors to Japanese and Western European governments, and might facilitate securing the China seat in the United Nations then held by the Republic of China. They also saw that the Nixon Administration perceived an American interest in deterring a Sino-Soviet conflict.

The result of this signaling was two extraordinary meetings on January 20 and February 20, 1970 in Warsaw, between Walter Stoessel, the American Ambassador to Poland, and Lei Yang, the Chinese Chargé d'Affaires. The Ambassadorial Talks, first held in 1955 in Geneva and then in Warsaw after 1957, had proven a useful instrument of diplomatic exchange (especially during the 1958 Quemoy-Matsu crisis, during the 1962 Chinese concern about Taiwanese military operations against the mainland, and during the 1965 Chinese concern with U.S. escalation of the Vietnam War). Nonetheless, the talks had dwindled to a largely sterile exercise until the Stoessel-Lei exchange. At the two meetings, new ground was broken in three areas. Ending a 15-year deadlock on the Taiwan issue, the United States tacitly acknowledged for the first time that this was a matter to be settled peacefully by the Chinese themselves; the Chinese in turn abandoned their previous stance that until the issue was settled, no improvement in the relationship could take place. Second, both sides acknowledged a common desire for a more stable environment. Third, both indicated their desire for conversations at higher levels, perhaps through a presidential emissary to Beijing.

Even after this January-February 1970 convergence, 18 months passed before Kissinger's July 1971 trip. The May 1970 Cambodian invasion caused delay, as possibly did the February 1971 incursion into Laos. The process was made more protracted by the secrecy and indirectness of the communications. Another source of delay was the internal resistance, obstruction, and lack of coordination on both sides. Kissinger perceived foot-dragging at the State Department, while China specialists in the Foreign Service who privately supported changes in China policy hedged their memos, unaware of how rapidly the President was prepared to move. Mao and Zhou on several occasions hinted at their own internal resistance, presumably principally from Minister of Defense Lin Biao. With persistent, sometimes ominous Soviet pressure in the background, the obstacles were eventually surmounted, and the two sides began to plan for the Kissinger trip in April 1971.


The next two years witnessed a rapid sequence of events: Kissinger's July 1971 secret trip, Nixon's February 1972 visit, and the opening of the Liaison Offices. Interspersing these developments were major missions to Beijing by Kissinger in October 1971, Alexander Haig in January 1972, and Kissinger again in June 1972. Among the reasons for the swift forward movement, the foremost was a global strategic context conducive to rapprochement. Throughout this period, the United States saw the China connection as a way to facilitate settlement of the Vietnam War, while the Chinese, still feeling vulnerable to the Soviet Union, saw in the United States a credible counter-weight to Soviet expansionist tendencies, including in Indochina. Statesmanship is required, however, to identify and transform opportunities into reality, and the rapid forward movement cannot be explained without reference to the artistry of Mao, Zhou, Nixon and Kissinger.

Several factors explain their capacity. First, although the principals in this drama came from extraordinarily different backgrounds-one the son of a peasant from the interior of China, another the aristocratic bearer of the Mandarin tradition, yet another of middle-class, Midwest and California origins, and finally, an immigrant Harvard scholar of international affairs-they were bound by a common approach to world politics. Drawing the four together was a belief that the essence of diplomacy, the requisite for stability, was the maintenance of regional and global balances of power. Not only was their approach to diplomacy similar, but their perception of the current situation was sufficiently congruent that their conversations during the two-year period were wide-ranging, congenial, and very constructive. Beyond their intellectual compatibility, from mid-1971 to mid-1973 the leaders on both sides had political credibility. They appeared to be in control of their domestic politics, Mao and Zhou having bested Lin Biao and Nixon gearing up for what became a triumph over the Democrats in the 1972 election.

As the relationship unfolded, moreover, the leaders on both sides became emotionally committed to their accomplishment, although at the outset self-interest rather than sentiment governed their calculations. The personal involvement brought a rigor, a precision, a meticulousness in the management of the relationship that is rarely exhibited in world affairs. Mao and Nixon were reluctant to vest the relationship in their respective, sprawling bureaucracies, with the cumbersomeness and parochialism which, whether justly or not, they feared would suffocate the policy.

Each side demonstrated extraordinary sensitivity to the other side. The handling of the Taiwan issue was the most obvious example in which each side accommodated the domestic needs of the other. In addition, perhaps as significantly, the United States responded to the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War in ways calculated to convince the Chinese of American determination to maintain the balance of power. The effort to prevent an Indian penetration of West Pakistan and the dispatch of elements of the Seventh Fleet to the Bay of Bengal, as well as Kissinger's private communications to Foreign Minister Huang Hua, indicated Washington would abide by its responsibilities to prevent the dismemberment of states by aggressive neighbors.

Gradually, as their confidence in the United States increased, the Chinese began to take American concerns into account in their posture toward Korea and Japan. On the Korean peninsula, the Chinese began to make a more explicit contribution to the maintenance of stability. In Japan, the Chinese ceased calling through their minions for the dissolution of the Japanese-American security treaty, a call that had been an irritant in Japanese-American relations since the treaty was signed. The net result, by early 1973, was a more stable Northeast Asia than had existed in decades.

In Indochina, in addition to openly differing with Hanoi's military strategy and political objectives in the South, by the spring of 1973 Kissinger and Zhou Enlai had begun to coordinate their separate policies, in order to lay the groundwork for a coalition government in Cambodia under Prince Sihanouk. The grand design, as it began to unfold, was for the Americans to support the Lon Nol government and to weaken the Khmer Rouge, while the Chinese would work the other side of the street, sustaining their leverage over the Khmer Rouge through their aid program while continuing their vituperative verbal onslaught on Lon Nol. It was hoped that both the Lon Nol regime (without Lon Nol) and the Khmer Rouge would be sufficiently weary by year's end of a stalemate which only benefitted Hanoi's prospects for ultimately dominating an exhausted Cambodia. At that point, Beijing and Washington could induce their respective clients to accept a coalition regime. To achieve this objective required staunch American support of the Phnom Penh regime, of course, or else the Chinese would have no leverage, no incentive by which to encourage their clients to be even temporarily conciliatory.5

Thus, by the end of the period from the spring of 1971 to the summer of 1973, Sino-American cooperation had assumed unexpected forms. A scant eight years before, Secretary of State Rusk had seen the threat to Indochina as Chinese in origin, while the Chinese had wished to rid their southern flanks of the American-backed SEATO threat. By May 1973, each saw advantage in keeping the other engaged in the peninsula, to prevent it from being dominated by an increasingly Soviet-backed Hanoi.


Within weeks, the hope which Zhou and Kissinger shared of bringing stability to Indochina was shattered. From then to President Ford's December 1975 trip, Sino-American relations essentially marked time. In mirror image, on both sides the factors that had contributed to the forward surge fell away.

Foremost were the ramifications of Richard Nixon's mortal political wounds. Already in the spring of 1973, distracted by the news conveyed to him by John Dean, the President lacked the strength and fortitude to counter Vietnamese violations of the Paris peace accords. In June, the Ervin Committee had launched its inquiry into the Watergate affair and the related incidents. With the American press and public wary of reengagement in Indochina and Democrats sensing Nixon's vulnerabilities, Congress imposed a deadline on all U.S. bombing in Cambodia and foreshadowed an end to U.S. aid to Phnom Penh. The Kissinger-Zhou design was pulled apart, as the Khmer Rouge saw an unopposed road to Phnom Penh and the North Vietnamese sensed the approaching opportunities in Saigon. Instead of dealing with credible leaders, the Chinese soon saw they were dealing with a Nixon and Kissinger under siege, from whom they could gain no solace.

Nor were Mao and Zhou in much better shape. In late 1973, Zhou was under severe domestic attack from other factions in the leadership. During Kissinger's November 1973 trip, Mao had a wide-ranging conversation which probably was intended at least as much for a Chinese audience. (Memoranda of the Chairman's conversations frequently were disseminated throughout the higher echelons of the bureaucracy to guide policy.) This conversation, from which the second volume of Kissinger's memoirs quotes extensively, provided a floor beneath which Sino-American relations could not sink in the ensuing couple of years.

Yet, during the remainder of Mao's and Zhou's lives and Kissinger's tenure in office, the relationship never achieved its previous élan and dynamism. By November 1973, the aging Mao himself may have been more the object of manipulation than an initiator of intrigue. Zhou's ability to sustain his policies was circumscribed, as cancer and the machinations of Mao's wife and her associates felled the Premier. From late 1973 on, the Chinese Politburo was split into two warring camps, with neither able to achieve dominance. On one side was Zhou, the architect of the Sino-American relationship; in the Hobbesian world of Chinese factional strife, his adversaries hit him with all the barbs the American connection provided: the introduction of bourgeois culture, the planned auctioning of Chinese natural resources, and the use of China to facilitate a Soviet-American rapprochement.

The latter point deserves elaboration, for during Kissinger's 1974 and 1975 travels to China a note of acrimony and bitterness crept into the Chinese dialogue. In his earlier trips, Kissinger had justified American détente with the Soviet Union less in its own terms than as a tactic to buy off liberals in Western Europe and the United States while Washington embarked on a program to strengthen its capacity to deal with Moscow. With SALT I, the Vladivostok agreement of December 1974, grain sales, technology transfer, and the Helsinki Accords of mid-1975, the Chinese began to feel they had been used. As they described it, the United States had "stood on China's shoulders" to reach agreements with Moscow. They believed Nixon's China opening simply had facilitated an improvement in Soviet-American relations, which hardly was Mao's intent. Soviet expansion in Angola and elsewhere encountered a supine American response.

To make matters worse from Beijing's perspective, hopes had been raised in 1972 that an American effort would be made to complete the normalization process during Nixon's second term. (No commitment was made as to the terms.) Watergate and then the growing Ronald Reagan challenge to Gerald Ford's renomination precluded fulfillment of the hope, a fact which the Chinese understood. Nonetheless, the same developments did not halt forward movement in Soviet-American relations. The net result was that by the time President Ford visited China in December 1975, the relationship had more image than substance, though both sides had incentive to sustain the image in hopes of a future upturn. Encouraging Beijing to reach this conclusion was Ford's hint that he would try to address the normalization issue early in his second term.


Soon after President Ford left Beijing, a concerted attack began against Deng Xiaoping, to whom Zhou had yielded authority in 1974-75. Indeed, Ford had been taken to Beijing University to witness the wall posters which launched the campaign. With Zhou Enlai's death in January 1976 and Deng's purge in April, the factional balance tipped at least superficially toward the militant ideologists of the Cultural Revolution. Mao's health was rapidly deteriorating, and key elements in the power balance (especially the military and the public security forces) marked time, awaiting the Chairman's death. During this interlude, when nativistic winds again blew strong in Beijing, the American connection suffered. Chinese officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and elsewhere who were widely perceived as pro-American took cover.

Mao's conversations with Nixon and Kissinger had left an ambiguous legacy with respect to Taiwan. On occasion, Mao spoke of Chinese patience; yet he also accused the United States of harboring imperialist designs and indicated that the issue probably would ultimately be settled by force. Zhou had sought to underscore the "soft" side of Mao's dualistic view, but in the summer of 1976, without attributing the source, for the first time Chinese began to quote the hard side of the polarity to such visiting Americans as Senator Hugh Scott. Not surprisingly, such militant Politburo members as Zhang Chunqiao and Ji Dengkui took the lead in subjecting Americans to the harsher edge of China policy.6 At the same time, presidential campaign rhetoric exposed the Chinese anew to the American concern over Taiwan, as both candidates reaffirmed their commitment to the island's future.7

In the fall of 1976, leadership changes in both countries tested the narrow bureaucratic base of the relationship. Mao died in September, and the arrest of his militant supporters in October led to the removal of the Minister of Foreign Affairs. The subsequent months witnessed considerable uncertainty in the leadership, centering on the timing and conditions of Deng Xiaoping's resumption of high office. On the U.S. side, President Ford's November defeat removed the team that had built the relationship. A new group had to familiarize itself with a record of conversations that had been tightly held.


Yet the relationship survived the succession in both capitals.8 During this transition, the Soviet Union made a bid to improve Sino-Soviet relations. Other than reaffirming its commitment to the Shanghai Communiqué, the Carter Administration did little to counter Moscow's initiative, placing China low on its list of priorities in its first months. Nonetheless, perhaps spurred by the return of Deng Xiaoping in the summer, by mid-1977 the Chinese had rebuffed the Soviet initiative and reaffirmed their tilt toward the West.

The Carter Administration's China policy, but not its strategic rationale, finally began to take shape in June, though the objectives were not fully pursued until the following May. The State Department had prepared the first extensive interagency memorandum on China for the President-Policy Review Memorandum (PRM) 24, Part I-in May 1977, and after preliminary discussion it went to President Carter for his consideration. It recommended that normalization be pursued within the framework established in the conversations of the previous seven years. It therefore recommended that the United States establish diplomatic relations with the P.R.C., and terminate formal governmental relations with the authorities on Taiwan. Without diplomatic relations with Taipei, the defense treaty and the U.S. military presence would be terminated.

The memorandum argued that our cultural and economic relations with China would stagnate or erode until full diplomatic relations were established: the Chinese no longer would trust U.S. pledges to normalize at a later date. In addition, State noted, the United States risked improvements in Sino-Soviet relations unless we moved forward. Finally, it was argued, improving relations with China would facilitate improvements in U.S.-Soviet relations, as had occurred in 1971-73. Secretary Cyrus Vance's position was strongly supported by Vice President Walter Mondale, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, and the President's National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Even before he came into office, Carter was determined to recognize the P.R.C. as the government of China, providing he felt confident Taiwan's prospects for a peaceful, prosperous future would not thereby be endangered. The assurances Carter decided in June 1977 to seek from Beijing were, first, that normalization would not prevent the United States from selling arms to Taiwan; second, that the American people could continue, unimpaired, unofficial cultural, economic, and other relations with the people of Taiwan; and third, that at the time of normalization the United States could make a unilateral, uncontested statement concerning its expectation that the Taiwan issue would be settled peacefully. This package was derived from the negotiating record which the Carter Administration inherited from the previous two Administrations.

In a July 30 meeting, when giving Vance instructions for his August China trip, the President said, "Cy, lay it all out on the line. I've never gained from procrastinating. Describe our full position." Carter said that if the Chinese were prepared to accept his package, he was ready to normalize, but if they were unwilling, then so be it. He would go no further. In fact, so serious was the Vance mission that the Secretary carried with him a draft recognition communiqué which he was authorized to table and begin negotiating, should the Chinese react favorably to his presentation.

Between the July 30 meeting and Vance's late August trip, however, a major political development intruded on the landscape: the growing recognition of the battle looming ahead to secure Senate approval of the Panama Canal Treaties. The President's earlier willingness to absorb the recognition issue was tempered by his desire not to jeopardize a single possible vote on the Treaties. As a result, Vance built some room for maneuver into his earlier, leaner presentation. Specifically, he indicated a preference, in the post-normalization period, for the United States to assign some governmental employees to the non-official entity which would represent the American people in Taiwan.

The Chinese fastened upon this portion of Vance's presentation, claiming it was a retrogression from Ford's earlier statements on this issue. Beijing also took exception to American descriptions of the Chinese stance on the Taiwan issue as "flexible"-unauthorized descriptions given to the press in Washington as the Secretary departed from China. Deng Xiaoping had too recently returned to office, his power still to be consolidated, to afford the label "flexible." He could not tolerate any misunderstanding over the Chinese principle that the United States had to sever official ties with Taipei unambiguously.

At the time, public speculation about the Vance mission attributed the lack of progress to his Taiwan presentation and to the ill-founded characterization of the Chinese position. In fact, even before hearing the Secretary's presentation on Taiwan and on the prospects for normalization, the Chinese evidenced a confrontational rather than an accommodating stance. It was a posture not calculated to elicit the minimum American position from Vance. In retrospect, it seems likely that the Chinese leaders in August 1977 were no more prepared to absorb the normalization issue than the Carter Administration. Only one year from Mao's death, with Deng just returned and in an uneasy relationship with the novice Hua Guofeng, the leaders in Beijing were in no position politically to make the difficult decisions which normalization negotiations would certainly entail.

The Carter Administration had done little to that point to generate Chinese respect for the firmness of its overall foreign policy. Normalization to Beijing would signify a further Chinese tilt toward the United States, and the Chinese were seeking the sense of strategic orientation which the Nixon Administration had earlier provided. To August 1977, the signs were more in the other direction-of an Administration oblivious to the Soviet global design. Nor did the Administration's first moves in Asia reassure Beijing of Washington's commitment to maintain the regional balance of power: announcing its intent to withdraw U.S. forces from Korea, sending Leonard Woodcock to Hanoi to seek information on the men still missing in action (MIAs) and to initiate diplomatic contact with our erstwhile enemy, and indicating displeasure with the human rights violations of key friends in the area. In this context, during the Vance visit, Beijing adopted a classic Chinese negotiating posture, indirectly discouraging an interlocutor from initiating a negotiation the Chinese did not then want. Afterward, and again in classic fashion, they blamed the interlocutor for creating obstacles, in order to place pressure on him to offer more when the negotiations began.

Lest Washington lose interest, however, in the months following the Vance visit Beijing began to emit numerous signals that it desired forward movement in its relations with Washington. The rhetoric on Taiwan began to draw on the softer side of Mao's formulations, with renewed expressions of patience and hope for a peaceful resolution of the issue. (As late as June 1977, the Chinese had reflected the tougher of Mao's pronouncements.) Following a lapse of two years, Beijing resumed purchase of U.S. wheat. The Ministry of Petroleum accepted an invitation by Energy Secretary James Schlesinger to send a government delegation to the United States, the first time the Chinese did not insist on the fig leaf of all delegations being labelled "unofficial." Senators Jackson, Kennedy, and Cranston were separately accorded extraordinarily warm welcomes; the talk emphasized the hope for a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue. Finally, through two channels, the Chinese invited Zbigniew Brzezinski to visit China. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs had decided that it would play upon the institutional rivalry between the National Security Council staff and State, about which Kissinger had educated them, to prod American China policy forward. The Chinese turned to the official whose world views more closely corresponded to their own.


The Chinese were knocking on an opening door. Brzezinski believed that the Carter Administration foreign policy had not been a roaring success during its first year. The United States had swiftly retreated from its initial proposals for deep cuts in nuclear weapons at the SALT talks. It had not focused on the Soviet dimension of turmoil in Africa. It had sought to introduce the Soviet Union into the Mideast equation. It had neglected China. Brzezinski believed that this softness would encourage further Soviet adventures and would make Senate approval of a SALT agreement more difficult.

Thus, even as the Chinese were fastening upon him as a likely advocate of strengthened Sino-American ties, Brzezinski began to push for initiatives toward China. He argued for the merit in his traveling to China to help restore momentum to the relationship. The fight for Senate approval of the Panama Canal Treaties precluded immediate, high-visibility forward movement toward China, but as passage came in sight in mid-March, Carter authorized planning for the Brzezinski trip to proceed. One day after the Administration won the vote on the first treaty, the Chinese were informed of Brzezinski's desire to accept the invitation they had extended in the winter, and the precise date for his visit was set on the day following the vote on the second treaty.

From early 1978, the Administration began to devote more attention to China. With the President's strong support, even before his May visit, Brzezinski had begun to hold regular conversations with Ambassador Han Xu, the acting chief of the Liaison Office, the purpose of which was to instill greater confidence in Carter Administration strategic thinking and to rekindle the consultative dialogue Kissinger enjoyed until late 1975. Also, in January 1978, steps were taken to relax export controls to China and to communicate to our European allies that Washington considered that their possible arms sales to China would primarily be a matter for them to decide. During Prime Minister Fukuda's visit, President Carter spoke favorably of the Sino-Japanese Friendship Treaty then under negotiation.

Further, with firm Presidential backing, Science Advisor Frank Press began planning for a broad-based government exchange program in science and technology. Press, who had headed the private Committee on Scholarly Exchanges with the People's Republic of China, believed our national interest would be well served by a broad-based official exchange program with the Chinese. An interagency task force under Press' direction set to work by early 1978, unknown to the Chinese. Here was a component of the Carter approach that differed substantially from the previous two Administrations. To Kissinger, science and cultural exchanges were clearly secondary concerns, relegated to the agenda of subordinates; to Carter and his associates, scientific exchanges with China could be used as an important instrument of policy.

Leonard Woodcock also provided important impetus through his fall and early winter trips to Washington. Earlier, in October, Woodcock had insisted on eliciting instructions from State to indicate to the Chinese that the issue of American post-normalization representation on Taiwan would not prove to be a stumbling block. Then, on February 7, the President met with Ambassador Woodcock and gave his full backing to Woodcock's determination to achieve normalization on the terms outlined the previous June. Upon his return to Beijing, Woodcock discreetly and indirectly began to test the waters to ascertain whether the Chinese would accept the package the President had in mind. He also began to lobby for this agreement by floating and defending it to the long list of American congressmen, businessmen, and journalists who came to the Liaison Office.

Adding significant momentum within the Administration was a State paper on China policy assessing the strategy for normalization. Drafted at the initiative of Secretary Vance and Assistant Secretary for East Asian Affairs Richard Holbrooke, the paper argued that a window for normalization would probably exist after the fall 1978 congressional elections. That window would remain open into 1979, but then would be limited by two factors: 1) an anticipated Senate fight over approval of a SALT treaty; and 2) eventually, politics over the Presidential election. The paper strongly recommended that the window be used.

A key question which the State paper and subsequent meetings addressed was the relationship between the timing of normalization, on the one hand, and SALT II and relations with the Soviets more generally. A consensus existed among the President's advisors-Vance, Brown, and Brzezinski-that ideally normalization should precede efforts to seek Senate approval of SALT II. Prior to Brzezinski's visit, no decision had been made as to whether normalization or signing of SALT II should come first. In April, both goals remained sufficiently beyond reach to make questions of precise sequence seem premature. The President decided the time was coming to bite the bullet: in June the United States would enter formal negotiations for normalization. Brzezinski carried this message to China in May.

President Carter based his decision on the expectation that Soviet-American relations would be improving by late fall. With a SALT agreement in hand, American interests would best be served, the President judged, by seeking to improve relations with both Moscow and Beijing simultaneously. Indeed, this position in the triangle would provide incentives for both the Chinese and the Soviets to continue their forward movement with the United States. The goal at this point was not to be drawn inadvertently into the Sino-Soviet dispute on one side or the other, although a rebuff by one side to American overtures would not deter the effort to improve relations with the other.

Developments in Beijing matched those in Washington. In February, the National People's Congress placed economic development at the top of China's agenda. This significantly enhanced the attractiveness of a closer relationship with the United States for the technology and capital it could offer. By May, Deng Xiaoping had gained considerable initiative within the Politburo, though not until the end of the year did he achieve a totally dominant position. At least as important, in terms of developments since the Vance visit, was the breakdown in Sino-Vietnamese relations. The vehemence with which the Chinese denounced Vietnamese perfidy was the most unexpected aspect of Brzezinski's discussions. Deng's consolidated position and China's increasing security concerns on its southern flank were probably two additional factors prompting a positive response to Brzezinski's proposals to enhance the strategic dialogue, to initiate normalization negotiations, and to broaden scientific and economic exchanges before normalization. The high level interagency science delegation led by Frank Press was one such step, and the Chinese ensured that Press visited Beijing in July, before an already-scheduled mission to Moscow he was to lead in August.


Upon Brzezinski's return, in a June 20 meeting President Carter instructed his advisors to aim for a December 15 normalization date, but not to inform the Chinese of the timing we had in mind. Ambassador Woodcock's negotiations were guided by that rough target.

The Administration's negotiating strategy called for Woodcock to present the American position slowly, one issue at a time. The most sensitive points-continued arms sales to Taiwan and the unilateral American statement-were deferred, while issues unlikely to prove stumbling blocks, such as the U.S. determination to retain economic, cultural, and other relations with Taiwan and the nature of the unofficial, nongovernmental representation on Taiwan, were addressed first. The idea was to unfold the American position at a deliberate speed, and to prolong the negotiations if it became clear the Chinese would not meet the minimum terms. The common hope that the difficulties could eventually be surmounted had bound the United States and China since 1971. A Chinese "no" to the minimum American offer would have done untold and irreparable damage to the relationship. The stage was therefore set to ensure that the answer would be a predictable "yes."

Woodcock's presentations to the Foreign Minister from July to December were but one of three channels between Beijing and Washington. Brzezinski continued his regular meetings with Han Xu and then the new chief of the Liaison Office, Ambassador Chai Zemin. His purpose was not to comment on Woodcock's presentations but to discuss the world situation-SALT talks, the eroding position of the Shah, Soviet expansionism in Africa, the Israeli-Egyptian peace process-so that the Chinese could understand the global strategic context in which the Carter Administration placed normalization. Finally, Richard Holbrooke fostered a third channel through which the Chinese protested to him U.S. arms sales to Taiwan which were being reported in the American press. This gave the Chinese the opportunity to limit their protests to this channel and keep their immediate concerns from intruding on the Woodcock or Brzezinski channels, thus signaling their desire to keep the two other dialogues moving forward.

The discussions proceeded as the top leaders on both sides kept their eyes on three related developments: their relations with Vietnam, the SALT talks with the Soviet Union, and their domestic standing.

Through the summer and early fall of 1978, Sino-Vietnamese relations continued to deteriorate, Vietnam moved increasingly toward the Soviet Union, and by September a major Vietnamese-Cambodian armed conflict was becoming increasingly likely. Not only did this situation encourage the Chinese to improve relations with Washington, but it also prompted the Vietnamese to seek normalization with the United States. In a September meeting with Holbrooke, the Vietnamese formally dropped their demand for reparation payments as a condition for normalization. The Vietnamese were cautioned that armed conflict in the region or a closer relationship with the Soviet Union would make normalization difficult. Although the Vietnamese understood that normalization could not take place before the congressional elections in November, in October U.S.-Vietnam negotiations began on issues surrounding normalization: settlement of frozen assets, planning for embassies, and so on.

Within the U.S. government, the issue arose briefly and prematurely as to how to relate the negotiations with the Vietnamese and the Chinese. On October 11, the President told Leonard Woodcock that he would not wish to complicate the China negotiations with an early normalization with Vietnam. Neither the Vietnamese nor the Chinese were informed of this decision. In any event, for a number of reasons the issue soon became moot. One day before the congressional elections the Vietnamese signed their treaty of alliance with the Soviet Union in recognition that only Moscow would provide it with the military and political support for its planned invasion of Cambodia. By early November, those plans were becoming increasingly manifest. Further, Hanoi's forced expulsion of countless Vietnamese by sea had increasingly eroded the remaining American political support for normalization. These considerations combined to make recognition of Vietnam impossible.

The looming Vietnamese-Cambodian conflict and the Soviet-Vietnamese treaty led the Chinese to begin cultivating the option of military action against Vietnam. This contingency added to the attraction of completing the normalization processes with the United States. It also may have strengthened Deng's hand against potential critics of the compromises necessary to reach an agreement.

Adding to Chinese incentives, on the Soviet-American front the SALT talks were progressing well. By late November, it seemed that an agreement was close at hand. The possibility of a Brezhnev-Carter summit in January or February 1979 was beginning to be rumored in the press. Brzezinski kept the Chinese informed of these developments, as well as about the débacle in Iran and the Camp David Accords. The Chinese understood that if they were to advance the Sino-American relationship significantly before and not in the wake of an upturn in Soviet-American relations, they had to act with dispatch.

The domestic political forces in Washington and Beijing and the strategic setting were converging to facilitate normalization. The President felt particularly ready to absorb the normalization issue in the wake of his successes at Camp David. He had returned from the Presidential retreat to give the normalization negotiations a decisive shove forward in his talks with Ambassador Chai Zemin on September 19, and spelled out American insistence on continuing carefully selected arms sales to Taiwan that would not be threatening to China-a formula repeated on several occasions. The President then communicated to the Chinese through Woodcock on November 2 that he was thinking of a January 1 date for normalization. He had begun to think of three spectacular successes to announce to the American people before Christmas: completion of the Camp David Accords, normalization, and SALT II.

His Chinese counterpart was enjoying a similar surge. Deng Xiaoping had nailed down the Peace and Friendship Treaty with Japan. Domestically, the political base of leaders associated with the Cultural Revolution continued to erode. Deng openly signaled Chinese readiness for normalization, on one occasion noting a desire to visit the United States and in another interview observing that if the Peace and Friendship Treaty with Japan took but one second to settle, normalization would require but two seconds. When the Chinese indirectly indicated to Woodcock on December 4 that they too were thinking in terms of a possible January 1 normalization date and that Deng Xiaoping was prepared to enter the negotiations, it was clear the denouement was close at hand. They seemed prepared to absorb the arms sales issue and negotiate on a recognition communiqué.

Woodcock was informed Deng would see him on December 13. For the first time, Brzezinski discussed with Ambassador Chai the negotiations in Beijing. To make the planned session more productive, on December 11 the National Security Advisor briefly foreshadowed the American presentation, alerting the Chinese that Woodcock would be inviting either Hua Guofeng or Deng Xiaoping to visit the United States in January and tabling a revised joint communiqué. (Woodcock had submitted a first draft in early November, and the Chinese had tabled a second draft on December 4.) Thus clued, and speaking on behalf of the Politburo, on the 13th Deng accepted the invitation and negotiated on the draft communiqué. In the light of the American determination to terminate the defense treaty with Taiwan in accordance with its terms, leaving the treaty in effect throughout 1979, Deng requested that the United States sell no arms during that year.

Woodcock's cable reporting the conversation led Carter to the unmistakable conclusion that only one meeting would be necessary to iron out the final details. Already sobered by the leaks the Administration had suffered on Iran, the President decided that an agreement of this enormity could not long be kept secret. Should the story leak out in bits and pieces, the President would lose the initiative in presenting the case for normalization to the public. He therefore decided to wrap up the negotiation swiftly, and to make the announcement two days hence, on December 15. Woodcock saw Deng twice on the 14th, once to alert him to Carter's preference for an announcement on the 15th and then to go over the communiqué. Woodcock conveyed Carter's willingness to forego new obligations for arms sales in 1979, though this pledge did not extend to replacement parts or sales already in the pipeline.

Some concern was felt in Washington that the Chinese might have misinterpreted the one-year moratorium on Taiwan arms sales as indicating a willingness to forego sales beyond that. Woodcock therefore was instructed to seek an additional meeting with the Chinese, to ensure the American position was clear. The President's formulation of September 19 was repeated. The Chinese responded in equally firm fashion that arms sales to Taiwan infringed on Chinese sovereignty and could not be accepted. Hence, the negotiating record is clear. No agreement was reached on this most difficult issue. In agreeing to normalize relations, the two sides deferred their differences on continued U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. The Chinese reserved the right to raise the issue again, and American officials expressed the belief that the post-normalization era would gradually offer a better environment for discussing the issue.

The United States at no point placed a time limit on these sales or pledged to curtail them over time. Nonetheless, implicit in the American position was that the quantity and quality of sales would be linked to Beijing's posture on the Taiwan issue. The Shanghai Communiqué had linked the size of the American military presence on Taiwan to the level of tension in the region; this had led to a drawdown of U.S. forces to roughly 2,500 at the time of normalization. Though this point was never made in any discussions with the Chinese, a logical extension of this principle would suggest that arms sales would diminish as tension continued to diminish. Further, before normalization, both the Ford and Carter Administrations had decided to continue sales of the F-5E fighter aircraft rather than to meet Taiwan's request for the more powerful F-4.

Here, since the Carter Administration had laid great stress on its expectations that Beijing would seek a peaceful resolution to the Taiwan issue, Beijing may have concluded that their response to our expectations would elicit U.S. restraint in the area of their greatest concern. Thus, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan remained a potential irritant in Sino-American relations. Given the gap in their positions and the thinness of their bilateral ties, had the two sides sought an explicit agreement or understanding in December 1978, normalization probably would not have been achieved.


Recognition and Deng's triumphant visit in January 1979 broke the dam which had restrained the natural development of Sino-American relations for 30 years. The next frenzied two years saw 35 treaties, agreements, and protocols signed between American and Chinese governmental agencies. Trade, tourism and scholarly exchanges grew rapidly. The process of rediscovery inevitably produced a public euphoria, and excessive expectations grew on both sides, generated more by sentiment than hard-headed analysis of future possibilities in the economic, cultural and scholarly realms.

To the attentive observer, however, several developments in 1979 struck a note of caution. The Taiwan Relations Act of February 1979 sobered the Chinese in its strong reaffirmation of the American interest in Taiwan. The Administration proved unable to temper a Congress that was highly indignant over what many on the Hill considered inadequate consultations on normalization. The Chinese had been forewarned that Congress would have to pass a law mandating an unofficial American relationship with Taiwan, but the final language on arms sales was more explicit than Carter's formulation in the normalization negotiations and highlighted the profound differences between the two sides on this issue: "The United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability." Carter's assurance that the Act would and could be implemented in a manner consistent with the normalization agreement only partially met Chinese concerns. Perhaps this President could be trusted, but how about his successors?

A lawsuit by Senator Barry Goldwater, with other Senators, then challenged the right of the President to terminate the defense treaty without consultation with Congress. Assured by the Administration of the constitutionality of its action, nonetheless the Chinese began to see that yet a third branch of government, also not subservient to the President, had to pass on the legality of his actions.

Finally, in the summer of 1979 the Administration became embroiled in a debate over extension of most favored nation (MFN) treatment to China. Should it precede or accompany MFN for the Soviet Union? If the latter, when should the Administration move, before or after SALT? Some Soviet specialists at State sought to delay submission to Congress of the trade agreement signed with China in early July until relations with the Soviet Union were on a steady course. They argued that the United States was being inadvertently drawn into the Sino-Soviet dispute on the Chinese side; further, they alleged, the increasing American tilt toward China was one of the major factors prompting Soviet opportunism. Particularly after the Soviets rebuffed overtures to obtain assurances on their immigration policy to meet the requirements of American law, the opposing side argued that to withhold MFN from China would simply punish the Chinese for Soviet intransigence. Nearly forgotten in the debate was an American commitment to seek expeditious approval of the trade agreement and extension of MFN in exchange for Secretary of the Treasury Michael Blumenthal's March 1979 settlement of the claims-asset issue on terms advantageous to the United States. In any case, the President supported MFN for China and went further. He supported Vice President Mondale's recommendation that the United States clearly differentiate between China and the Soviet Union on a whole range of bilateral issues: export controls, eligibility for Export-Import Bank financing, MFN, and so on. Mondale informed the Chinese of this basic decision during his August 1979 trip.

The Chinese responded in kind, and throughout 1979 their opening to the West accelerated. So rapid had the progress been that the pathbreaking Mondale visit essentially completed the agenda which the two sides had set in January 1979 and which both sides estimated would perhaps take 18 months to complete. What remained to negotiate were aviation, maritime, textile, and consular agreements, and these complex negotiations were shepherded to completion in August 1980.

Without doubt, Soviet behavior over the previous year accelerated the Sino-American alignment: Brezhnev's heavy-handed attempts to warn Carter and our European partners against forward movement; opportunistic Soviet behavior in Latin America, Vietnam, the Middle East, and Africa; and the continued Soviet military buildup along the Chinese border, including the adding of strength in Mongolia. This general strategic environment and the continued political strength of Carter and Deng through the first half of 1979 provided the foundation for the surge in bilateral relations and shoved differences on Taiwan far into the background.


By the summer of 1979, relations had extended to all areas but military affairs. Ground began to be broken in that realm during Mondale's August visit, when the two sides agreed to a visit by Secretary of Defense Brown in the near future. The American sale of dual-purpose technology and the possible European sale of arms had already been contentious within the Administration, but planning for Brown's visit brought the debate into sharper focus. Brzezinski and Brown wished to cultivate the Sino-American relationship to become a permanent part of Moscow's calculations creating a Soviet perception that any expansionist move risked enhancing Sino-American military cooperation. This might help to constrain Soviet actions, to both Washington's and Beijing's benefit.

The strategy represented considerable movement from the Department of State advocacy in 1977 and 1978 of seeking simultaneous improvements in relations with both Beijing and Moscow, a policy precluded by the deterioration in Soviet-American relations. Not surprisingly, therefore, deep concerns existed at the State Department that the Brown trip and its consequences might unnecessarily provoke the Soviet Union, already feeling encircled, into risky actions. President Carter strongly backed Brown's trip, but initially envisioned a carefully circumscribed mission. The symbolism of the visit itself and the scheduling of subsequent defense exchanges would be the assured highlights.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan expanded the scope of the early January visit-the date for the visit having been set before the invasion began on December 27, 1979. President Carter told Brown on the morning of his departure to inform the Chinese of the Administration's willingness to consider sales of nonlethal military equipment on a case-by-case basis. The President had in mind trucks, radar, and communications, command and control equipment. The Chinese did not respond immediately, but as 1980 wore on, the matter was explored in increasing detail. Minister of Defense Geng Biao joined a group led by Deputy Chief of Staff Liu Huaqing in May for further discussions with Harold Brown, and William Perry, the head of development and research in the Department of Defense, visited China in September. Through these visits, the two sides acquired a more accurate sense of the needs for, possibilities of, and limitations on the sale of equipment and technology. At this point, many observers had begun to speak of an emerging Sino-American (and Japanese) alignment or entente in the Pacific.

Unquestionably, the 1979-80 initiation of military contacts was traceable to the rapidly growing Soviet military might in those years and to Soviet intervention in southern Africa, the Horn of Africa, Indochina and Afghanistan. The Iranian débacle and Washington's desire to maintain a sustained military presence in the Persian Gulf also had their impact. Portions of the U.S. Navy in the Gulf came from the Pacific Fleet, and the American ability to assign these ships to Mideast duty on a sustained basis depended on the stability of the Western Pacific. Were conflict to erupt in Korea, for example, while the Persian Gulf remained tense, the United States would be in a difficult position indeed. In analogous fashion, China could devote its military resources to the Soviet threat and its Indochina problem, confident that the United States no longer would use Taiwan to complicate its defense planning. From this perspective, by early 1980 and continuing to the present, the constructive Sino-American relationship and the stability it brings to Northeast Asia have become essential ingredients in the national security policies of both the United States and China.

At the same time, Harold Brown's visit pointed to differences in strategic outlook. For the first time, the American toasts exceeded the Chinese in their anti-Soviet tone.9 The Chinese did not seem to be eager to cooperate in manifest ways with American efforts to assist Pakistan. Rather, the Chinese began to develop a theme which grew in importance through the coming two years, namely, that China's ambitious modernization program required a tranquil environment. The Chinese had concluded that heightened Soviet-American tensions were not necessarily in China's interest. They might inadvertently entangle China in a conflict it did not seek. In sum, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan probably reminded the Chinese of the risks of becoming too closely identified with the United States.10


From the summer of 1980 through the summer of 1982, the relationship experienced a troubled and tense period.11 The difficulties in part began in the Carter Administration, with the initial authorization for American aircraft companies to discuss with Taiwan the sale of an advanced jet fighter, labelled the FX, and with the granting of diplomatic immunity to members of the unofficial Taiwan agency in Washington, the Coordination Council for North American Affairs (CCNAA). Even more serious was candidate Ronald Reagan's August 1980 statement that he wished to make relations with Taiwan official. Reagan refused to endorse the Shanghai Communiqué or the normalization agreement and instead made the Taiwan Relations Act the bedrock of his China policy. The Chinese also saw Reagan surrounded by advisors who were extremely close to Taiwan. They became convinced that Reagan at heart supported a "two Chinas" position and that his real intent was permanently to detach Taiwan from the mainland. The desire for the unity of China remains so intense, so central to the entire world view and purpose of the Chinese revolution, that relations were bound to be unsettled at the outset of a Reagan presidency.

Matters were not helped by the invitation to Taiwan, subsequently modified under Chinese protest, to send representatives to the Reagan inaugural, by Reagan's continued reluctance personally to endorse the Shanghai Communiqué, or by the initiation of contact between the President's National Security Adviser, Richard Allen, and the head of the CCNAA. Looming in the background was the question of arms sales to Taiwan, with the sale of the FX fighter a lively possibility.

The Administration attempted to stabilize matters by announcing its March 1981 decision not to upgrade relations with Taiwan and through Secretary of State Alexander Haig's June visit to China. Haig informed the Chinese that the President was willing to consider the sale of weapons to China and was relaxing export controls on high technology items to China. The Haig visit also appeared to allay Chinese fears about American arms sales to Taiwan. A second visit to the United States by Deputy Chief of Staff Liu was discussed. Through the summer, Chinese officials indicated that while they expected U.S. arms sales to taper off, possibly in a short period of time, and that sale of the FX would lead to serious retrogression, they would oppose but were prepared to withstand prudent arms sales.

Yet the March 1981 renewed commitment to the Shanghai Communique and normalization agreement and the Haig visit did not have an enduring effect. As one indication, the Liu visit did not occur. The Chinese continued to receive mixed signals over Reagan's China policy. In Chinese eyes, Haig had become the defender of the policy, and speculation about White House-State Department tensions and Haig's ebbing political fortunes generated continued anxiety.

Further, within China, Deng Xiaoping's own political strength appears to have been tested. The retrenchment initiated in late 1980 called into question Deng's management of the economy during the previous two years, and the tightening of controls in the cultural realm in mid-1981 reversed some liberalizing trends with which Deng had been identified. The assessment of Mao's role in Chinese history issued by the Chinese Communist Party in July was the product of protracted, contentious debate. Under domestic pressure, with his primary energy focused on arranging an orderly succession, Deng probably found it difficult to continue his close, supportive involvement in Sino-American affairs. Thus, it seems likely that throughout 1981, and into 1982, Deng was less able and willing to spend his limited political capital on protecting an American relationship that was not being meticulously managed on the Washington side.

Believing that they had not been assertive enough and that time was not necessarily in their favor, on September 30, 1981 the Chinese issued a nine-point proposal for the peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue.12 Although the specific points had been stated previously, the reiteration underscored Beijing's preference for a peaceful settlement. The People's Republic also launched a major effort to engage Taiwan in talks. One secondary purpose of the proposal probably was to affect the American debate on arms sales to Taiwan, a subject which was addressed without satisfaction to either side during President Reagan's October meeting with Premier Zhao Ziyang and during Foreign Minister Huang Hua's visit to Washington in the same month.

The Chinese sought assurances that the arms sales to Taiwan would terminate within a fixed period of time. Politically, legally, and many would argue on foreign policy grounds as well, the United States could not agree to this. The Taiwan issue, which had been so delicately set aside at the time of normalization, was again at front and center.

Assistant Secretary for East Asian Affairs John Holdridge journeyed to Beijing in January 1982 to inform the Chinese of the President's decision not to sell the FX fighter to Taiwan but instead to continue to help Taiwan coproduce the F-5E beyond the 1983 termination date. Bearing a message from President Reagan, Holdridge also initiated the search for mutually acceptable principles to govern arms sales. The Administration postponed notifying Congress about the F-5E, in hopes an agreement could first be reached with the Chinese.

Discussions continued through the spring and summer in Beijing, punctuated by letters on April 5 from Reagan to Premier Zhao and to Vice Chairman Deng, a May visit by Vice President George Bush bearing a Reagan letter to Party Chairman Hu Yaobang, and a visit by Senator Howard Baker. The future course of Sino-American relations literally hung in the balance during this time.

During this uncertain time, the Soviet Union made a bid to improve Sino-Soviet relations. While the Chinese did not respond in any dramatic fashion, Beijing persisted in efforts evident since Mao's death to make their essentially adversarial relationship with Moscow more stable. Except during the early 1979 Indochina conflicts and the early 1980 Afghanistan crisis, the trend since 1976 has been toward a less rancorous, less volatile Sino-Soviet relationship. The ideological polemics are gone. The border confrontation is less tense. Some low-level visits have begun. However, the military buildup persists on both sides.

Instead of responding to Soviet overtures (which may have been intended more for American consumption in any case) by moving significantly toward Moscow during a period of Sino-American tension, Beijing chose to highlight its own independence from both superpowers. Its rhetoric began to lump the Soviet Union and the United States together. The label "hegemonists" was no longer reserved for Moscow but was extended to include Washington as well. American policy in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East was condemned in harsh tones. In short, while distancing itself somewhat from the United States, the P.R.C. sought to strengthen its identity as a developing country, becoming more active in its espousal of various Third World causes.

These subtle changes in Chinese foreign policy in 1981-82 did not preclude an accord with the United States, and on August 17, 1982, the two governments issued an important communiqué on arms sales to Taiwan. The joint document built upon the Shanghai Communiqué and the normalization agreement, making explicit what was implicit in those documents. It incorporated wording from Reagan's three letters to the Chinese leaders and from Chinese statements concerning their policy toward Taiwan. By relating these previously separate statements, making each dependent on the other, they acquired more binding force. Among the communiqué's major points were these:

- The Chinese reiterated their fundamental policy of striving for a peaceful reunification of Taiwan.

- The United States disavowed any intent to infringe on Chinese sovereignty or territorial integrity or to pursue a "two Chinas" or "one China, one Taiwan" policy.

- The United States indicated its understanding and appreciation of the Chinese policy to strive for a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan question.

- Having in mind the foregoing statements of both sides, the United States indicated it did not seek to carry out a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan, that its arms sales would not exceed in quality or quantity the levels supplied since 1978, and that it intended to reduce gradually its sales.

- The two governments pledged every effort to create conditions conducive to a thorough settlement of the arms sales issue.

This carefully crafted document does not resolve the arms sales issue. But it commits both sides to resume the expansion of their economic, cultural, scientific and other ties. Thus, the arms sales issue will be handled in a context of increasingly thick connections between the two nations, where each side has ample incentive to continue to acknowledge the interests of the other.

What combination of factors produced the August agreement? Domestic considerations had their impact. Reagan's political need to notify Congress of the F-5E arrangements established a deadline for the negotiations, while the state of Soviet-American relations provide a major incentive to the Administration not to permit a major deterioration in its China connection. Politically, the President was under intense pressure to resume major arms sales to Taiwan, but Reagan would have been politically vulnerable if China relations worsened through his mismanagement. The Administration was prepared to settle the matter at an early date.

On the Chinese side, preparations for the 12th Party Congress had prior claim on the leadership's attention. In the spring, Deng and his allies appear to have recovered the initiative lost late in 1981 in making key personnel assignments, in reorganizing the government bureaucracy, and in directing the economy. By August 1982, planning for the Party Congress was sufficiently advanced that Deng could afford to take on the tough arms sales issue. More than that, the reaching of an accord presumably strengthened the leadership on the eve of a vital meeting which would chart China's succession and future economic development strategy. Comparable to the situation in late 1978, strengthening of the American tie was domestically useful.


Three questions were posed at the outset of this article. What explains the ebb and flow in Sino-American relations since 1972? What facilitates forward movement? What are the constraints? Our examination reveals a subtle interplay of the global strategic context, the domestic political setting in each capital, and the handling of the Taiwan issue. Each step has required compromise and accommodation to the political needs of the other side, which in turn require firm leadership and a capacity to take on hard issues.

Firm leadership alone cannot guarantee expansion of ties. The expansion must suit the strategic and economic interests of both sides. Driving the relationship until 1980-81 was the common perception of the dangers posed to both sides by the Soviet Union and of the need to improve relations as one measure to meet the threat. In the more recent period, the Chinese perceive a Soviet Union that is less immediately threatening to it, bogged down in Afghanistan and Poland, with major commitments in Indochina, Cuba and Africa. Nonetheless, the American connection remains useful, not only as a long-run counterbalance to the Soviet Union but as a source of capital and technology to hasten China's economic development. To the United States, the China connection and the stability it has brought to Northeast Asia permit a concentration of resources where the Soviet threat is more immediate. Moreover, the August 17 Communiqué accepts the premise that the well-being of the people of Taiwan is best obtained not through exclusive reliance on arms but through constructive and binding Sino-American ties.

Nonetheless, the two sides do have conflicts of interest, particularly over Taiwan. Unless the domestic political situation and the strategic setting permit an easing of the problem, the Taiwan issue always threatens to become a severe irritant to Sino-American relations. Any American President or presidential aspirant must deal with a significant segment of the political landscape which believes the United States has deep obligations to the people (and some would add government) on Taiwan. Any Chinese leader faces an even stronger body of opinion that the eventual recovery of Taiwan must be a major goal. Once the issue heats up, consummate skill is required to reach a new accommodation, as the two sides exhibited in the summer of 1982.

The ten-year record reveals a paradox. On the one hand, the relationship exhibits continued fragility, easily susceptible to erosion through mishandling of the Taiwan issue. On the other hand, when the two sides confront the possibility of a breakdown, they are driven to accommodation, for constructive Sino-American relations have become essential ingredients to the national security of both sides.

1 See Richard Nixon, RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1978, and Henry Kissinger, The White House Years, Boston: Little, Brown, 1979.

2 A. Doak Barnett, China Among the Major Powers in East Asia, Washington: The Brookings Institution, 1977.

3 For an account that traces the debate from well before the Czech invasion, see Thomas Gottlieb, Chinese Foreign Policy: Factionalism and the Origins of the Strategic Triangle, Research Report R-1902-NA, Santa Monica: Rand Corporation, 1977.

4 Kissinger, op. cit., p. 186.


7 For example, the Republican platform stated, "The United States should do nothing to compromise the freedom and independence of Taiwan," while candidate Carter said he would not go back on the commitment to protect Taiwan against a military takeover. See The New York Times, October 17, 1976, p. 28.

8 The sections on the Carter Administration draw on personal recollections as a National Security Council staff member and on subsequent conversations with several other participants.

9 See Foreign Broadcast Information Service, (People's Republic of China), No. 80-004 (January 7, 1980), p. B-2, and No. 80-007 (January 10, 1980), p. B-2.

11 For a more detailed account of the Reagan Administration's China policy through the fall of 1981, see A. Doak Barnett, The FX Decision: Another Crucial Moment in U.S.-China-Taiwan Relations, Washington: The Brookings Institution, 1981.

12 The proposal is in The New York Times, October 1, 1981, p. 6. See also The New York Times, October 4, 1981, p. 6 and October 10, 1981, p. 3.



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  • Michel Oksenberg is currently Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan and a Research Associate at its Center for Chinese Studies. He was a member of the staff of the National Security Council, concerned with matters relating to China, from January 1977 to February 1980. He is the author of The Dragon and the Eagle (with Robert Oxnam) and other works.
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