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International Relations
in the Age of Empire

A Lesson in Foreign Policy
When China taught Vietnam a Lesson with US Support

"..The Chinese did not give us a precise date for the forthcoming "educational experience" that they were planning for Vietnam.... I developed a proposal that the United States should criticize the Chinese for their military action but should couple that criticism with a parallel condemnation of the Vietnamese for their occupation of Cambodia, and demand that both China and Vietnam pull out their forces. I knew that such a proposal would be totally unacceptable to the Vietnamese and to the Soviets, and hence would provide a partial diplomatic umbrella for the Chinese action without associating the United States with it... The Chinese learned in the course of the three critical weeks that they now had a reliable friend: they could confide in us, we could keep a secret, and our public reaction - formally critical but substantively helpful- was firm and consistent..."

[comment by tamilnation.org - If countries do not have permanent friends but only permanent interests, and if diplomats are honest men and women who lie on behalf of their country, then it seems that diplomacy is about lying and at the same time being credible. In the felicitous language of Zbigniew Brzezinski, it is a matter of a judicious use of 'form' and 'substance'. It is a matter of being 'clever' - not being truthful. But then truth, after all, is a pathless land - and is related to the frame through which you view the world. It is simply that some of us may have a different frame from those who may be ruling the United States from time to time.]

From Power and Principle - Memoirs of the National Security Adviser 1977-1981 by Zbigniew Brzezinski, published 1 September 1985 [later Professor of American Foreign Policy at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies]

"The Vietnamese Lesson

Deng's visit (to Washington in January 1979) was clearly a major success both for the Chinese leader and for his host. However, before departing the Chinese leader dropped a small bombshell at our feet. As I have noted earlier, Deng had requested a private meeting with the President, and it was held on Tuesday at 5 p.m. and lasted about an hour. On our side, the Vice President, Vance, and I also attended, and Deng was accompanied by a Vice-Premier, the Foreign Minister, and Deputy Foreign Minister. The Subject, as I expected, was Vietnam.

We knew front previous conversations with the Chinese that they were gravely concerned over the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia, seeing it as a Soviet-sponsored aggression designed to strengthen Vietnam as a base for Soviet operations in Southeast Asia. In various conversations with top U.S. officials, the Chinese leaders stressed that this represented a strategic threat to China's security, as well as a longer-range threat to the stability of Southeast Asia. The Cambodian regime that the Vietnamese displaced, that of the murderous Pol Pot, had been closely allied to China, and the Chinese were determined to retaliate against the Vietnamese.

When we sat down together in the Oval Office, I had a general sense of what was coming, and so did the other members of the American side. Nonetheless, there is a difference between anticipating a situation and actually experiencing it. There was something grave and very special in the calm, determined, and firm way in which Deng Xiaoping presented the Chinese case. China, he said, had concluded that it must disrupt Soviet strategic calculations and that "we consider it necessary to put a restraint on the wild ambitions of the Vietnamese and to give them an appropriate limited lesson."

Without detailing at this stage what the lesson specifically would entail, he added that the lesson would be limited in scope and duration. He then calmly diagnosed for us various possible Soviet responses, indicating how China would counter them. He included among the options "the worst possibility," adding that even in such a case China would hold out. All he asked for was "moral support" in the international field from the United States.

Though we had had some preliminary discussions earlier, I wondered how the President would react. Prior to Deng's arrival, I had mentioned to the President the growing Chinese concern over Cambodia and how important it was for us not to convey to the Chinese any excessive U.S. alarm over possible Chinese actions. I was worried that the President might be persuaded by Vance to put maximum pressure on the Chinese not to use force, since this would simply convince the Chinese that the United States was a "paper tiger." Accordingly, I was quite relieved when the President responded in a matter-of-fact fashion, simply pointing out that this was a serious issue which he would like to discuss with his advisers before giving his reaction. He did register the view that the Chinese action could be highly destabilizing and that restraint was desirable in such a difficult situation.

Deng responded by saying that if the Vietnamese were not restrained, they would expand their activities. China would undertake a limited action and then withdraw its troops quickly. Citing the Chinese-Indian clash of 1962 as an example, Deng insisted that the Vietnamese must be similarly punished. He concluded by saying that he did not expect United States endorsement, and indeed appreciated that sometimes one had to do things one would prefer not to do. It was obvious that the Chinese had weighed all the alternatives and decided to undertake the action, even if it involved a confrontation with the Soviet Union. I must admit that I was impressed with the deliberate and resolute tone of Deng's presentation.

The next day the President met with us to discuss how best to respond. We agreed that he should meet with Deng alone and urge him in restrained terms to reconsider. In addition to international repercussions, we were concerned that military action by China could undermine U.S. domestic support for normalization. The President himself drafted by hand a letter to Deng, moderate in tone and sober in content, stressing the importance of restraint and summarizing the likely adverse international consequences. I felt that this was the right approach, for we could not collude formally with the Chinese in sponsoring what was tantamount to overt military aggression. At the same time, the letter did not lock the United States into a position which could generate later pressures to condemn China in the UN.

When the President met alone with Deng, the Chinese leader expressed his appreciation for the President's comments, but reiterated his view that "China must still teach Vietnam a lesson." Otherwise, he argued, the Soviets might use Vietnam the way they had used Cuba, adding prophetically that later on Afghanistan would suffer the same fate. Deng reasserted his confidence that China had the necessary strength to carry the operation through and again assured us that it would be short, lasting only ten to twenty days. He expected divided international reactions but felt that in the longer run world opinion would gravitate in China's favor. Deng concluded by saying, not disingenuously, that it was good to have a friend with whom these things could be discussed so frankly. The President said that he wanted Deng to understand that our position was not based on fear of the Soviet Union; rather, we felt that it was better to isolate the Soviet Union and Vietnam internationally than to engage in actions which could gain them greater worldwide support.

I held separate meetings with Chinese Foreign Minister Huang, an engaging though extremely assertive and somewhat polemical diplomat, and I shared with him my concern that the Chinese might be forced to withdraw by a Soviet nuclear threat or that their operation might become more protracted than they had planned. Although Huang was silent and apparently not very much alarmed, I hoped that my warning would encourage the Chinese to concentrate on a swift and decisive move and not undertake a prolonged engagement. As a particular gesture of friendship, I went out to the helipad near the Washington Monument to bid goodbye to Deng personally. I wanted to underline Presidential support, and Deng gave me the impression of being quite pleased. We had the traditional two-handed handshake, and Dcng urged me to visit China again.

The Chinese did not give us a precise date for the forthcoming "educational experience" that they were planning for Vietnam. Within days of Deng's departure, I outlined my views on how the United States should react. I wanted to avoid a situation in which we would be pressured, both by world opinion and by the State Department, to condemn the Chinese as aggressors. Accordingly, I developed a proposal that the United States should criticize the Chinese for their military action but should couple that criticism with a parallel condemnation of the Vietnamese for their occupation of Cambodia, and demand that both China and Vietnam pull out their forces.

I knew that such a proposal would be totally unacceptable to the Vietnamese and to the Soviets, and hence would provide a partial diplomatic umbrella for the Chinese action without associating the United States with it, thereby permitting the United States to adopt publicly a somewhat critical position.

As is usually the case with contingency planning, this proposal did not provoke much controversy as long as it was still in the hypothetical stage. Thus, at least in a formal sense, an agreed position emerged, in anticipation of the Chinese action. An indication that it was imminent came to us in the unlikely setting of the banquet for President Lopez Portillo given by President Carter during his visit to Mexico City. In the course of the banquet, held on Thursday, February 15, I was called out of the room to receive an urgent message from Washington. The Chinese Ambassador wished an appointment with either Secretary Vance or me to convey an important message. I instructed my NSC China aide, Michel Oksenberg, to accept it, but the Chinese responded by saying that their instructions were to deliver it precisely at 9 a.m. Friday morning. The combination of urgency and a fixed time was very suggestive, and I went back to the banquet and whispered into the President's ear my conclusion that the Chinese military action was about to be undertaken.

Since both Vance and I were away, the Chinese had no choice but to deliver their message to Oksenberg, who received it in my name on the President's behalf. Friday morning, while driving from the U.S. Ambassador's residence to a breakfast with President Lopez Portillo, I phoned Washington from the President's car and was briefed on the Chinese message. The Chinese were informing us that they had considered carefully our objections, but in view of the deterioration of the situation on the frontier with Vietnam, they were now undertaking the necessary "self-defense measures" which they had previously discussed with us. After briefing the President and Vance, I called Washington back and spoke to the Vice President. On the President's instructions, I told him to hold an immediate meeting of the SCC, with principals only, to review the situation and to report back later in the morning.

Later in the day, I received the proposed text of the message to the Chinese, which we had earlier developed and which I now reviewed again with the President and Vance. There was no disagreement among us: we should register our disapproval but not do so in panicky terms and certainly not in a manner which would in effect put us on the side of the Soviets, who most certainly would be condemning the Chinese once the action had started.

Immediately upon returning to Washington, the President convened a meeting of the NSC. He was more formal than usual and began the meeting by saying: "This is a meeting of the National Security Council. Will the National Security Adviser please proceed." We reviewed at length what attitude we should adopt in the event the Soviet Union should forcefully react to the hostilities. Everyone concurred with the view that our demand for the withdrawal of Chinese forces from Vietnam should remain coupled with the demand for a Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia.

It was further agreed to send a message to the Soviets urging them not to take actions which could exacerbate the situation, particularly through military deployments or other forms of military action. I urged that we include in the message a phrase to the effect that the United States was prepared to exercise similar restraint. Some in the room felt that this sounded excessively concessionary, but I argued that it was important to give the Soviets some sense of reciprocity. (Privately, I felt that the phrase implied also a willingness to respond militarily if the Soviets acted.) The addition was finally approved, and the message was sent to the Soviets immediately thereafter. Somewhat to my surprise, Cy and others did not object to a passage in the message to Brezhnev which seemed to hint at some connection between SALT and the need for restraint on the part of the Soviets.

I spent Sunday, February 18, in my office, for the hostilities had now broken out and additional meetings needed to be held. Late that afternoon I phoned former Presidents Ford and Nixon to brief them. Nixon emphasized the need not to take any action which would give the Soviets a green light against the Chinese. To solicit his advice, I read to him our message to the Soviets, and he immediately spotted the subtle allusion to SALT and commented very favorably on this, calling it "linkage."..

.... we also received a strongly worded message from Brezhnev, which, like our earlier one, came over the hot line. It arrived as the President and Vance were honoring Ambassador Adolph Dubs on the return of the body to Washington from Afghanistan; the moment the funeral cortege had taken off, the President, Vance, and I went into the Presidential helicopter to consult on the message. I translated it verbatim from the original Russian while the three of us sat there shivering in the unbelievably cold temperature which had struck Washington. We were absolutely frozen stiff.

I was very impressed by the President's reaction, which seemed to match the temperature. He was not at all perturbed by the message, and told us to stay on the course we had previously determined. In effect, a slight tilt in favor of the Chinese....

In Washington, we continued our deliberations while closely monitoring Soviet reactions. The President's advisers agreed that we should warn the Soviets that any organized Soviet military presence, particularly naval presence, in Vietnam (notably in Cam Ranh Bay), would force us to reevaluate our security position in the Far East. The implication of this message was, of course, that a U.S.-Chinese relationship of some sort would develop as a consequence of such Soviet involvement. Again, this message represented an implicit step toward a wider American Chinese relationship.

Throughout this crisis, I felt that the Chinese action in some respects might prove beneficial to us. For one thing, it revealed some limits to Soviet power by demonstrating that an ally of the Soviet Union could be molested with relative impunity. This was a lesson bound not to be lost on a number of observers, notably those potentially threatened by the Soviet Union. I also felt that a steadfast U.S. position would convince the Chinese that we were not a "paper tiger" and that the relationship with us had certain longer-range and reciprocal security benefits.

As they had told us from the beginning, the Chinese after some twenty days terminated their operation and withdrew their forces. The Soviet reaction throughout was confined to threats and bluster.

From a military point of view, the Chinese operation was not as efficient or as effective as apparently the Chinese had anticipated. The Vietnamese proved more resilient, while Chinese command and control, as well as logistics, were more cumbersome than expected in conditions of modern warfare-but the political point was effectively made. The Vietnamese were forced to redeploy some of their forces from Cambodia, the conflict imposed very major costs on them, produced a great deal of devastation, and, above all, showed the limits of their reliance on the Soviets. Most importantly, thanks to Carter's steadfastness, the new American--Chinese relationship had successfully weathered its baptism of fire.

Had Carter wavered, it is doubtful that the U.S.-Chinese relationship would have blossomed. The Chinese learned in the course of the three critical weeks that they now had a reliable friend: they could confide in us, we could keep a secret, and our public reaction-formally critical but substantively helpful-was firm and consistent. We learned that the Chinese trusted us, that they were not easily intimidated, and that their determination could be strategically helpful."

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