An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

The Geneva Conference 1954

Mar 20, 2017 © Ulrich Theobald

China's important role in the Korean War raised its confidence substantially. In the 1950s China took over the function of a mediator between Western powers and what was then known as Third-World countries (a term coined in 1952). Prime Minister Zhou Enlai 周恩来, who was concurrently Foreign Minister, toured through the world and brought the Communist regime visibly to the international stage. In the late 1950s relations with the Soviet Union worsened for ideological reasons.

The Conference of Geneva was held between April 26 and July 20, 1954, and deliberated the Korean question and the problem of Indochina (the eventual Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia). It was attended by representatives of the United States, the Soviet Union, France, Great Britain, China, and of countries in question. The Conference was actually consisting of two strands. The Korean issue (withdrawal of troops, unification of the country) was not solved. The contributions of Zhou Enlai to the discussions (such as the proposal of free elections supervised by neutral countries) were the first time that China took a real share in international discussions. Zhou distinguished himself by talent, flexibility, skills, courtesy, and charm, and thus became a well-known figure on the international parquet.

In the Vietnam question, China showed great moderation, and thus gained the admiration of many states, in contrast to the U.S. which appeared as a "warmonger". During the Conference, Zhou Enlai, the Indian Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1864), and U Nu (1907-1995), Prime Minister of Burma (since 1989 Myanmar), declared the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence (Heping gongchu wu xiang yuanze 和平共处五项原则) between the different countries, referring to territorial integrity and sovereignty (huxiang zunzhong zhuquan he lingtu wanzheng 互相尊重主权和领土完整), non-aggression (hu bu qinfan 互不侵犯), non-interference into internal affairs (hu bu ganshe neizheng 互不干涉内政), cooperation and mutual benefit (pingdeng hu li 平等互利), and peaceful coexistence (heping gongchu 和平共处). China feared that the Indochina conflict might flash over to Chinese territory and destroy the achievements in the reconstruction of the economy, and did its best to reach a peaceful settlement, also by keeping the U.S. off from Asia. The latter, on their side, desired to establish new national states without allowing communism to interfere.

Table 1. The Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence (Heping gongchu wu xiang yuanze 和平共处五项原则)
互相尊重主权和领土完整 huxiang zunzhong zhuquan he lingtu wanzheng mutually respect sovereignty and territorial integrity
互不侵犯 hu bu qinfan no mutual aggression
互不干涉内政 hu bu ganshe neizheng no mutual interference into internal affairs
平等互利 pingdeng hu li equitable and mutual benefit
和平共处 heping gongchu peaceful coexistence

China succeeded in having the communist regime in Hanoi acknowledged, and thus had a buffer zone to the non-communist south, and an ally more. Prime Minister Phạm Văn Đồng visited Beijing in August that year. Yet with the Sino-Soviet split, Hanoi decided to become an ally of Moscow. Moreover, China's hopes for prolonged peace were vain, as Hanoi supported communist uprisings not only in South Vietnam, but also in Laos and Cambodia.

Further reading:
Calkins, Laura M. (2013). China and the First Vietnam War, 1947-54 (New York/Oxon: Routledge).
Chen Jian (2000). "China and the Indochina Settlement at the Geneva Conference of 1954", Paper presented at the Symposium on 'The First Indochina War: Nationalism, Colonialism, and the Cold War', 1-3 November 2000, at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum, Austin, Texas.
Olsen, Mari (2006). Soviet-Vietnam Relations and the Role of China, 1949-64: Changing Alliances (London/New York: Routledge).
Wang Tao (2017). "Neutralizing Indochina: The 1954 Geneva Conference and China's Efforts to Isolate the United States", Journal of Cold War Studies, 19/2: 3-42.
Yang Jiemian (2014) China's Diplomacy: Theory and Practice (Hackensack: World Century).
Zhai Qiang (1992). “China and the Geneva Conference of 1954”, The China Quarterly, 129: 103-122.
Zhai Qiang (2000). China and the Vietnam Wars, 1950-1975 (Chapel Hill/London: University of North Carolina Press).

Geneva Conference of 1954 (
The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition, Volume 1, Chapter 3, "The Geneva Conference, May-July, 1954" (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971).