An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Foreign Relations 1960-1970

Sep 8, 2017 © Ulrich Theobald

While the survival of the CPC regime was the foremost issue of Chinese foreign policy during the 1950s, the territorial integrity and security of the PRC gained more importance during the late 1950s. China was able to conclude several border agreements with neighbouring countries: Burma (1960), Nepal (1961), Mongolia (1962), Pakistan, Afghanistan (1963) and North Korea (1964). There were no frontier agreements with India, Sikkim (until 1975 an own state, in Chinese view until 2003), the Soviet Union, Bhutan, Laos and Vietnam. The danger of foreign attacks had shifted from the coastal zone opposite to Taiwan to both the southern frontier (borders to Vietnam and India) and to the north (border with the SU).

Strengthened by her diplomatic successes during the Geneva Conference in 1954, the Bandung Conference of 1955, and the diplomatic recognition by many Asian, African and non-aligned countries, China decided to directly test the willingness of the United States to help the KMT regime on Taiwan. The conquest of the islands of Yijiangshan and Dachen in 1955 (see First Taiwan Strait Crisis) had shown that the PLA was indeed able to recover territories claimed by the Republic of China. In 1958, China used US interference into the internal affairs of Lebanon as a pretext to shell the island of Kinmen, which is located just before the coast of Xiamen, Fujian. Yet the US Congress issued a resolution which announced to guarantee for the integrity of the Republic of China on Taiwan (see Second Taiwan Strait Crisis).

After the split with the Soviet Union because of ideological reasons and power policy China had to fight against the two superpowers at once. Khrushchev's rapprochement to the United States in the late 1950s (with his visit in Camp David in September 1959) demonstrated that the Soviet Union had left the camp of true socialist countries. In June 1960 deputies of the CPC attacked the CPSU during the International Meeting of Communist and Workers Parties in Bucharest, Romania. Soviet Russia thereupon ordered the withdrawal of more than 1,300 Soviet experts in China and one-sidedly terminated 340 contracts and 200 projects. This decision hit China severely because the economic situation was very critical as a consequence of many wrong policy decisions during the Great Leap Forward and of natural disaster.

On August 5, 1963 the Soviet Union, Great Britain and the USA signed the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (in Chinese Bufen jinzhi heshiyan tiaoyue 部分禁止核试验条约). China felt affronted because the SU had not announced this project to the Chinese side, and because the Soviet Union demonstrated with this agreement that she was (in Chinese eyes) a member of the imperialist camp. Moreover, the PRC charged the Soviet Union of attempting to slow down China’s development of her own nuclear weapons. After several mutual accusations in public organs, the SU cut her diplomatic ties with China (xxx when?), and the Warsaw Pact states followed. This status did not change when Khrushchev was toppled in October 1964.

With the change in international relations, Mao Zedong elaborated his theory of the interstitial world in his essay Zhongjian didai you liang ge 中间地带有两个 "Three are two interstitial zones" (Sep 1963). He was of the opinion that there were two different interstitial zones, namely developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and the developed capitalist countries of Europe. In his eyes, both parts felt dominated by the USA or the Soviet Union, and it was thus China's duty to fight against this domination. China supported socialist movements in Congo (DRK), Vietnam and Cuba, and also opened diplomatic relations with France on January 27, 1964, because President Charles de Gaulle openly demonstrated his willingness to leave NATO, which eventually happened in 1966 (yet even then, France remained willing to cooperate with the organization).

Internally, a change in ideology made itself felt after 1962. Mao Zedong stressed again the importance of class struggle and the fight against internal revisionism. After Russia's defection to the camp of imperialists, China would be the centre of world revolution, and had to prepare herself for war with the two superpowers. The Soviet Union became what the USA had been in the 1950s: the greatest enemy of the PRC. The attacks on the "revisionist" and "imperialistic" Soviet Union did therefore not come to a halt. The crackdown on the Prague Spring in August 1968 by troops of the Warsaw Pact, for instance, caused harsh criticism from the Chinese side.

The initiation of the Cultural Revolution in early 1966 destroyed any hope to fill out the role China's leaders had sketched out for international strategy. Diplomats were recalled to Beijing for ideological indoctrination; the Red Guards occupied the Foreign Ministry for several months, and even attacked the diplomatic representations of non-imperialist countries like India, Burma or Indonesia. The British Embassy was burnt down. Yet the "export of revolution" for the ignition of a world revolution did often not go beyond the distribution of the "Little Red Book" abroad. China's international reputation was severely damaged during the years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1968). China's ideological approach and aggressive propaganda estranged this country from many non-aligned states, and many of them even ended diplomatic relations with China, like Burundi, Dahomey or the Central African Republic. New openings of diplomatic relations began only in 1970.

Table 1. Diplomatic relations of China established 1961-1969
1961 Congo (Kinshasa/until 1966 Léopoldville, [Democratic] Republic of the Congo, 1971-1997 Zaire), Laos
1962 Uganda
1963 Kenia, Burundi
1964 Tunisia, France, Congo (Brazzaville, today Republic of the Congo), Tanzania, Central African Republic, Zambia, Benin
1965 Mauretania

China did not attend large international conferences, and the only one planned – the "second Bandung" to be held in Algiers, was not realized. China saw the UNO as an instrument of US imperialism and even planned with Indonesia to create an international organization of its own.

The "cold war" between China and the Soviet Union transformed into an armed conflict in March 1969, when Soviet and PLA troops fought against each other on the island of Damanski (in Chinese Zhenbaodao 珍宝岛) which is located in River Ussuri, a tributary to River Amur.

Internationally isolated, China had to opt for new ways in diplomatic relations in the late 1960s. This was possible when the hot phase of the Cultural Revolution was over. During the 9th National Congress of the CPC in April 1969, Minister of Defense Lin Biao 林彪 revived the old concept of peaceful coexistence, but omitted the ideological principle of world revolution – even if Mao's concept of the continuous revolution was enshrined into the party constitution during that congress.

Shortly later, Mao ordered several members of the Politbureau (Chen Yun 陈云, Ye Jianying 叶剑英, Xu Xiangqian 徐向前, and Nie Rongzhen 聂荣臻) to evaluate the international situation. They came to the conclusion that the differences between China and the US were smaller than that between China and the USSR and between the US and the USSR. The logical consequence would be to turn to the United States as a potential partner. This was the new project from 1970 on, while relations with non-aligned countries had been neglected since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.

The drive for territorial integrity led to the involvement in three military conflicts during the 1960s, first the short war with India in 1962, second, the support of Northern Vietnam against the US, and third, the provocation of SU troops on the island of Damanski.

The problem concerning Vietnam was that US bombers several times hit Chinese territory and US ships attacked Chinese boats. China did of course not desire a direct confrontation with the US, and therefore supported Vietnam primarily with weapons and food, and also by dispatching no less than 320,000 (over time) men as second-line troops (engineering corps, supply units, railway units). In total China provided help to Vietnam with a height of 20 billion US$ (Meng 2012: 79). The role of ideology played not a small role in China's support for Vietnam because the PRC saw herself as a competitor to the SU, and claimed from Vietnam to renounce Soviet help – which Hanoi refused.

China counted 4,189 clashes at the northeastern border during the year 1969. The Damanski case was carefully prepared: It happened in a region where no strong Soviet units were garrisoned, and at a time when the Chinese public would be involved: just before the 9th Nation Congress of the CPC.

In order to care for her own safety, China continued the atomic project begun with Soviet support and successfully tested an atomic bomb on October 16, 1964, and a hydrogen bomb on June 17, 1967.

China supported communist parties in various countries, but the ideological debate with the SU led to the split of many of these parties, with one faction carrying on the belief in the leadership of the SU, the alternative one in that of China. The latter, as those of the Maoist line advocating armed struggle, obtained ideological and financial support by China.

China identified herself as the new leader of the socialist camp because unlike the Soviet Union it was clinging to the Leninist principle that the bourgeoisie would never give up her position voluntarily, and the proposition that peaceful coexistence was only possible with non-imperialist countries. "Peaceful competition" between socialist and imperialist countries, a principle in which the SU believed, was not possible in Mao's eyes.

In the field of foreign trade, China did not pursue a clear line. The total volume of trade declined after the split with the Soviet Union because the latter had made out 48 per cent of the whole trade volume (1959), or 2.1 billion US$ in figures, and fell to 28 per cent, or 0.8 billion US$ in 1961. The total amount of foreign trade run up to 4.4 billion US$ in 1959 and declined to 2.66 billion US$ in 1962, but rose again to 4.03 billion in 1969 (Meng 2012: 86-87).

While the trade with communist countries declined, that with Western countries (incl. Japan) increased. China imported wheat (mainly from Canada), but also machines, heavy industry products, raw materials and metals, and exported agricultural products, textiles, and products of the light industries. Even if China conduced international trade on a modest level, Mao's theorem of economic development at that time was that China would have to care for herself. China did therefore not import expensive technologies from abroad. The country remained relatively poor, but on the other hand, did not experience heavy indebtedness and inflation, as many developing countries do. China continued to grant economic aid to many, mainly African, countries, to an extent which the national economy could actually not afford. (XXX figures?) Foreign aid was bound to eight principles as formulated by President Liu Shaoqi, among others equality and mutual benefit, respect of the sovereignty of the recipient, and not to make other countries dependent from China. This last principle made China's foreign aid appear as altruistic donation. Yet in fact, the PRC attempted to bring non-aligned states into a line behind China and against the SU and the USA.

The foreign policy of the PRC during the 1960s was characterized by the dominance of ideology and the fight against the Soviet Union. China strove to protect her territory, mastered the technology of nuclear arms, and prepared for a coming war. Economic aid was not fully granted as a selfless matter, but with the intention to win over non-aligned countries in an eventual fight against the two superpowers. Foreign trade played but a minor role. During the hot phase of the Cultural Revolution, foreign policy came nearly to a halt.

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