An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Foreign Relations 1950-1960

Sep 8, 2017 © Ulrich Theobald

China's strategy in foreign policy was in the beginning dictated by the need to "lean to one side" (yi bian dao 一边倒). Even if the United States had offered to mediate between the CPC 中国共产党 and the Kuomintang 國民黨 (KMT) in the first years after Japan's surrender in 1945, the development had shown that the US, particularly after the pronunciation of the Truman Doctrine in March 1947, would by any means support Chiang Kai-shek 蔣介石 and his regime on the island of Taiwan. China thus had to find her supporter in the USSR. This was quite natural because of ideological reasons, and China willingly accepted this situation because the Soviet Union as an industrial state would help China to build up her own industry and provide the young socialist country with military help in case the KMT or the USA launched an attack.

The idea of "leaning to one side" was first brought forward in Mao Zedong's 毛泽东 (1893-1976) speech "On democratic dictatorship" on June 30, 1949, in which he referred to the Father of the Nation (guofu 國父), Sun Yat-sen 孫中山, who also had seen the only chance for the KMT in the early 1920s in leaning on the side of the Soviet Union and the Comintern.

As early as 1949, China assumed diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and countries of the Eastern Bloc, and was thus integrated into the clearly divided bipolar world, as it was seen in Andrei S. Zhdanov's (1896-1948) doctrine of the two camps (два лагеря). Yet Mao Zedong would not have been a great theoretician if he would not have a world image of its own. Between the Soviet Union and the United States there was a wide interstitial zone (zhongjian didai 中间地带论) of countries. He brought forward this theory as early as 1946 in an interview with the journalist Anna Louise Strong, pointing at the fact that direct confrontation between the two superpowers would not be possible.

Quotation 1. Mao Zedong on the intermediate zone of countries
美国和苏联中间隔着极其辽阔的地带,这里有欧、亚、非三洲的许多资本主义国家和殖民地、半殖民地国家。 The United States and the Soviet Union are separated by a vast zone which includes many capitalist, colonial and semi-colonial countries in Europe, Asia and Africa.
Source: Talk with the American correspondent Anna Louise Strong, August 6, 1946 (bilingual edition on

This theory became in 1974 known as the "Three Worlds Theory" (san ge shijie de lilun 三个世界的理论). While the two hegemons and super-powers constituted the "first world", the second one was represented by the developed countries (fada guojia 发达国家) of Europe, Japan, Canada, Australia etc., and the third world by developing countries (fazhang zhong guojia 发展中国家) in Asia, Africa, and Latin America (one must not forget that in 1949, many of these were still colonies). With the creation of the NATO (founded April 4, 1949) and the Warsaw Pact (founded May 14, 1955), this theory became obsolete because most second-world countries would either align with the USA or the Soviet Union (with the notable exception, for instance, of Yugoslavia), while most third-world countries belonged neither to the imperialist nor to the anti-imperialist camp – the non-aligned countries.

Table 1. Mao Zedong's Three-Worlds Theory (1974)
第一世界 First World Superpowers USA and SU
第二世界 Second World Developed countries in Europe, plus Canada, Japan, Australia
第三世界 Third World Developing countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America

Mao appealed to all non-imperialist countries not to fear the military power of the United States, not even the atomic bomb, because it was just a "paper tiger" (zhi laohu 纸老虎). Mao believed in the strength of armies consisting of highly motivated people.

Quotation 2. Mao Zedong on the Atomic Bomb
原子弹是美国反动派用来吓人的一只纸老虎,看样子可怕,实际上并不可怕。当然,原子弹是一种大规模屠杀的武器,但是决定战争胜败的是人民,而不是一两件新式武器。 The atomic bomb is a paper tiger which the U.S. reactionaries use to scare people. It looks terrible, but in fact it isn't. Of course, the atom bomb is a weapon of mass slaughter, but the outcome of a war is decided by the people, not by one or two new types of weapon.
Source: Talk with the American correspondent Anna Louise Strong, August 6, 1946 (bilingual edition on

The foundation of the People's Republic of China, with ideological paradigms of her own, gave also the chance "to build afresh the stoves" (ling qi luzao 另起炉灶) and to "invite guests after cleaning the house" (dasao ganjing wuzi zai qing ke 打扫干净屋子再请客). With these slogans, Mao Zedong meant a general realignment in foreign policy, with a cancellation of all obligations the Republic of China had accepted. Such an approach is quite unusual in diplomatic relations. It gave the PRC the chance to nullify all treaties of her predecessors and to remove all influences of the colonial and imperialist powers, but also confronted the country with the problem of international recognition. Only neutral countries among the "second world" like Sweden, Denmark, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Finland (all 1950) or Norway (1954) therefore recognized the PRC in the first years.

There were also several non-communist countries of the "third world" which established diplomatic relations with the PRC in the first five years, namely India, Indonesia, Burma (all 1950), Pakistan (1951), Afghanistan and Nepal (both 1955).

Table 2. Diplomatic relations of China established 1949-1960
1949 USSR, Bulgaria, Romania, DPR Korea, ČSSR, Hungary, Poland, Mongolian PR, German DR, Albania
1950 DR Vietnam, India, Indonesia, Sweden, Denmark, Burma, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Finland
1951 Pakistan
1954 Norway
1955 Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Nepal
1956 Egypt, Syria, Yemen
1957 Ceylon (since 1972 Sri Lanka)
1958 Cambodia, Iraq, Morocco, Algeria
1959 Sudan, Guinea
1960 Ghana, Cuba, Mali, Somalia

From 1950 to 1953 China was involved into the Korean War, which had been ignited by the Korean leader Kim Il-Song 金日成 (1912-1994). North Korean troops nearly conquered the whole peninsula, but were then thrown back by UN troops, mainly under the leadership of US contingents and under US command. The invaders were thrown back far into the north and nearly advanced to the Chinese border at the banks of River Yalu 鸭绿江. The US advancement endangered the northwestern industries of China, whereupon Mao Zedong decided, after consultation with Stalin, to throw Chinese troops into battle. The Korean War ended in a stalemate and the Truce of Panmunjom 板门店.

The diplomatic world changed after the death of the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) in March 1953. The USSR defrosted the realm of foreign policy and approached some countries of the Western world by the principle of "peaceful coexistence" (мирное сосуществование), particularly after Nikita Khrushchev's (1894-1971) secret speech during the 20th Party Congress of the CPSU in February 1956 in which he condemned the personal cult around Stalin. Khrushchev also participated in the Geneva Summit in July 1955 during which the big players USA, GB, SU and France discussed about global security.

China was not very happy about this détente policy because the new line of the Soviet Union might weaken China's strength vis-à-vis the United States, which continued to protect the Republic of China on Taiwan. In October 1954, after the withdrawal of the Seventh U.S. Fleet from the Taiwan Strait, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) was founded whose Manila Pact can be seen as an anti-Chinese military alliance of Australia, France, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States.

In 1955 the Soviet Union initiated the Warsaw Pact which only included Eastern European countries. China's Minister of Defense Peng Dehuai 彭德怀 (1898-1974) only participated as an observer. In 1956 the Soviet Union suppressed liberal tendencies in Hungary. This incidence gave China the chance to produce herself as a big player in the second camp, offering alternatives to the then-prevailing institutional socialism and to revise the Stalinist pattern of inter-state relations in the Eastern Bloc.

Facing new threats or at least uncertainties in the international sphere, China decided to change her foreign policy. The most important chance for China was the creation of many new countries in the Near East and Africa from 1955 on.

China became indeed an important player on two international conferences. The first was the Geneva Conference (April 26–July 20, 1954) in which the Korean question and the Indochina question were to be solved. China felt threatened by the possible expansion of the Indochina conflict, and therefore gladly took over the role of a mediator at the Geneva Conference. China convinced the Western nations to accept the Communist regime in North Vietnam and so created a buffer zone in the south - as a parallel to the buffer zone as which North Korea could be used in the northeast.

The second stage was the First Asian-African Conference (Di yi ci Ya-Fei huiyi 第一次亚非会议), better known as the Bandung Conference (Wanlong huiyi 万隆会议 ) on April 18-24, 1955. During that conference, China and India tried to bring together the "third-world" or non-aligned countries into a status of "peaceful coexistence" (heping gongchu 和平共处, see Geneva Conference), according to which each state respected the other nations' integrity and independence, and all cooperated for mutual benefit.

The catchword of "peaceful coexistence" originated in the 1920s, when the creation of a socialist state in the USSR made necessary the prevention of international armed conflicts. It was revived by Khrushchev in the mid-1950s in relation to Soviet-US relations. China used the concept to describe its relations with non-aligned or "third-world" countries and made it a central requisite of the Bandung Line.

China gained high reputation among third-world countries during the two conferences, but used the Geneva stage also for parallel trade negotiations with "second-world" countries countries like France, Great Britain, Switzerland, and the German Federal Republic, and was eventually successful in concluding a treaty on commerce with Great Britain. This shows that China was willing to learn from and cooperate with other countries, be they communist or "capitalist".

In the mid-1950s, the PRC to applied to several international organizations, asking to take over the seat for China instead of the Republic of China on Taiwan, yet without success. Such organizations were the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the Universal Postal Union (UPU), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Foreign trade played but a minor role during the 1950s. In 1950 it amounted to 1.135 billion US$, making out 6 per cent of the GDP (Meng 2012: 56), in 1959 it was 4.381 billion US$, constituting still 6 per cent of the GDP. Foreign trade did not play an economic, but a political role. China granted altruistically high loans to other communist countries like the DPR Korea, the PR of Mongolia, North Vietnam, and also to non-aligned countries like Cambodia, Ceylon or Egypt. Between 1950 and 1960 China granted foreign loans in a height of of 4.028 billion RMB (Meng 2012: 63). China's international ambitions did not correspond to the relatively modest size of the economy. The PRC used her resources unconditionally to reach ideological and political gains, mainly international recognition.

On the other hand, China accepted Soviet support. Until 1955 it was given thirteen loans of totaling 6.87 billion Rubles (Meng 2012: 59), most of which were spent for the Korean War. All credits were amortized until 1964. With Soviet aid China financed 156 projects. The Soviet Union also sent experts to China who assisted in industrial projects. The highest number of Soviet engineers and experts in China at one time was 2,677 persons (Meng 2012: 59). In 1956 the SU concluded an agreement with China over the support for nuclear techniques.

China's attitude in foreign policy radicalized in the late 1950s during the years of the Great Leap Forward. In 1958, for instance, China risked the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1958 and shelled the island of Kinmen 金門 which still belonged to the Republic of China on Taiwan. This "adventurous" affair, as Khrushchev called it, not only challenged and tested the readiness of the United States to defend Taiwan (with a negative outcome for the PRC), but also that of the Soviet Union. With the latter, an ideological battle was in sight after differences over economic policy (the Great Leap Forward) and foreign policy (peaceful coexistence with the USA).

The structure of China's interests in foreign policy in the 1950s covered the spheres of security, ideology, diplomacy, and economy. For the CPC, regime survival was most important, and China would therefore have to be safeguarded against the USA and her allies and to strengthen her own defense potential. In the realm of ideology, China sought contact so the brotherly states of the socialist camp and fought against imperialism. China also strove to be recognized diplomatically by as many states as possible and to counter the US policy of containment. In terms of economy, the PRC voted for the support of underdeveloped friendly states and attempted to circumvent embargos.

Meng Lingqi (2012). Der Wandel der chinesischen außenpolitischen Interessenstruktur seit 1949 (Wiesbaden: Springer).