China's foreign policy, 1949-1979

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2010

18 Pages, Grade: 1


How did China’s international relations evolve between 1949 and 1979?

Part ONE: Essay


After the end of the Chinese Civil War and the victory of the Communist Party under Mao Zedong, the country made his famous lean to one site. The relations to western countries were suspended, and the Soviet Union became China’s biggest partner. The country was like a junior partner of Moscow until it recovered from the war and gained more self confidence. In the following years China not only fought in a couple of wars, but also became the (self-called) leader of the Third World. In addition to that Beijing split with his former ally USSR and approached with his former enemy America.

This essay discusses why China’s foreign policy changed that dramatically in not even 30 years. What motives where behind the decisions? Therefore it will be first analyzed the time of the Sino-Soviet partnership. What expected the country from Moscow and why did it breakdown with the West?

The next part of this essay is the stronger China in the world as leader of the Third World. Especially the conferences in Geneva and Bandung should be analyzed. The final part discusses the Sino-Soviet split and the rapprochement with the US. Why did this radical change occur? How did domestic issues like the Cultural Revolution or the Vietnam War influence this decision?

Beside a range of secondary literature, also especially Chinese documents should be analyzed.

China’s decision to lean to one side

The foundations to China’s decision to break with the West have been made in the Civil War. The US supported the GMD (Kuomintang - Nationalists) under Chiang Kai-schek, who fought against Mao. The USSR supported the CCP (China Communist Party) during the Civil War, although not very strong. After the end of the war in 1949, both governments felt a need to strengthen their relationship.1 There are many reasons, why Mao decided to lean to one side, meaning only to establish relations with other communist countries as he mentions in his speech in June 1949:

“Externally, unite in a common struggle with those nations of the world which treat us as equal and unite with the peoples of all countries. That is, ally ourselves with the Soviet Union, with the People's Democratic countries, and with the proletariat and the broad masses of the people in all other countries, and form an international united front We must lean to one side.”2

Beijing wanted to make a new start and to clean the house, and the country hoped for more economic and military assistance from the SU. Furthermore Mao used the rhetoric, that the US would be China’s enemy, to continue his revolution.3 A major step in building the Sino-Soviet friendship was the Mao-Stalin summit in 1949/50 where the two dictators met the only time face to face.

Mao wanted to discuss three major things in the summit:

- Security against a potential American attack
- Soviet assistance in the construction of socialism and
- Remove the stigma between the two sides, caused by the 1945 Sino-Soviet treaty between the SU and the GMD4

The meeting was long and tough. In the first days Moa reports about his meeting with Stalin they two leaders discuss about the possibility of an US attack on China, which Stalin refuses by saying it is very unlikely because the American fear war.5 Also they discuss the legacy of the old Sino-Soviet Treaty and the lease of Port Arthur, where Stalin says he would withdraw his troops. Also in a later meeting of the summit between Mao and the Soviet secretary of state Molotov on 17th of January 1950 the Chinese leader says, that ‘the People’s Government of China is taking certain measures toward forcing the American consular representatives out of China.’6, after the Russian side tried to convince the Chinese delegation the need of an Sino-Soviet friendship against America.

The Sino-Soviet relationship was important for both sides and also was an important milestone in the beginning Cold War. The Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance was signed after the summit on 14th of February 1950. The pact should strengthen the economic and cultural ties as well as found a military alliance in the case one of the contract partner would be attacked.7

Moscow became China’s most important friend. But the relationship was never easy and the treaty was not as good as expected for Mao. Mongolia was not reintegrated to Chinese territory and the country did only get a credit for $300 million for 5 years.8

Korean War

The Korean War 1950-53 was the only time after World War II when the troops of two global powers met on a battlefield directly. After the North Korean attack American troops could conquer almost the whole peninsula, getting close to the Chinese border. The war influenced the relationship with the SU and also of course with the US. But why did China decide to enter the Korean Civil War? The main reason for China’s engagement in the war was national security concerns. Mao did not want to have a border with Korea where US soldiers were stationed. Mao said: "If the U.S. imperialists won the war, they would become more arrogant and would threaten us,”9. But the country also feared an open conflict with America, as Mao mentions in a telegram to Stalin in October 1950:

“if we advance several divisions and the enemy forces us to retreat; and this moreover provokes an open conflict between the USA and China, then our entire plan for peaceful construction will be completely ruined, and many people in the country will be dissatisfied. “10

But still China entered the war in late 1950 with approximately 250,000 troops. The question is how far the SU pushed or forced China to enter the war? Stalin feared a direct confrontation with the US and therefore was pleased that their ally would fight instead of them. In addition to that the Soviets promised air force support, which they refused later. This was perhaps the first indicator for the upcoming split.11 But another consequence of the war in Korea was that China had to move closer to the USSR. China had lost about 1 million soldiers and saw the need to modernize its army. The Soviets made material available.12

A stronger China: The Geneva Conference

The Korean War showed that China still had to modernize to enter the global stage. In the while the country was more or less just the partner of the Soviet Union. Although China only took part in the Geneva Conference 1954 due to Russian request, the summit was very important for the communist regime entering the world stage for the first time.

Documents show that already as China knew it would take part in the conference the country prepared for it as a “big step toward relaxing international tensions.”13 Also it is showed that the conference had to end with some result about Indochina: “we must try our best to make sure that the Geneva Conference will not end without any result.”14 In addition to that the summit was seen as an opportunity to start some contacts with western states excluding the US, who was still seen as the main enemy. At the summit there was even a direct talk between Prime Minister Zhou Enlai and the British Secretary of State Anthony Eden. China acted very self-confident, saying “China deserves the status of a great power” or even blames the British delegation not being aware of the situation: “I wonder if Mr. Eden has studied the proposal by Mr. Pham Van Dong.” But in overall Enlai wants to prove that China wants peace and also that they “should both work to improve Sino-British relations.”15

The Geneva Conference also shows how close the Sino-Soviet relationship was at that time. There have been arrangements about a common policy at all times, showing that the tensions caused by the Korean War did not yet lead to a split.

A stronger China: the Bandung Conference 1955

For China the Geneva Conference has been a success. For the first time, the country was recognized as a big power and a common resolution was achieved China used diplomacy as an instrument to improve itself in the world. The Conference in Bandung was the next opportunity for it. This time China wanted to improve itself within developing countries. The Conference in Bandung was a step towards a third way in the Cold War, neutral to both big powers. Also it should be a step towards decolonization and anti-imperialism.


1 Jian Chen, Mao’s China and the Cold War (Chapel Hill, 2001), p. 44.

2 Mao Zedong, "On the People's Democratic Dictatorship," 30 June 1949, Mao Zedong xuanji Beijing: The People's Press, 1965, IV, 1477.

3 Jian Chen, Mao’s China and the Cold War (Chapel Hill, 2001), p. 44-46.

4 O.A. Westad, ‘Fighting for Friendship:Mao, Stalin, and the Sino-Soviet Treaty of 1950’, in Cold War International History Project Bulletin 8/9, p.224.

5 Telegram, Mao Zedong toLiu Shaoqi, 18 December 1949, in CWIHP Bulletin, p. 227.

6 Conversation, V.M. Molotov and A.Y Vyshinsky with Mao Zedong, Moscow, 17 January 1950, in CWIHP Bulletin, p.233,

7 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, Conclusion of the "Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance",

8 J.D. Spence, The search for modern China (New York and London 1990), p.524.

9 Mao cited in Chen Jian, The Sino-Soviet alliance and China’s entry into the Korean War, (Washington 1992) , p. 26.

10 Telegram by Mao Zedong to Stalin on 2 October 1950, in CWIHP Bulletin 8/9, p. 237.

11 R. Steininger, Der Kalte Krieg [The Cold War], (Frankfurt 2003), p. 64.

12 Spence, The search for modern China, p. 533.

13 “Preliminary Opinions on the Assessment of andPreparation for the Geneva Conference,” 1954, CWIHP Bulletin 16, p. 12.

14 Ibid.

15 Minutes of Conversation between Zhou Enlai and Anthony Eden, 14 May 1954, Bulletin 16, pp.20- 22.

Excerpt out of 18 pages


China's foreign policy, 1949-1979
Queen's University Belfast
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AUßenpolitik, Kalter Krieg, Kommunismus, Mao, Sino-Soviet, Nixon, Kissinger, UNO, China, Cold War, Sino-Soviet split, reaproachment, USSR, Asia
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Andreas Staggl (Author), 2010, China's foreign policy, 1949-1979, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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