Why did China enter the Korean War

The Chinese intervention in the 1950 Korean War has been seen as a significant point in converting a 6-month, regional conflict into a large scale international war. In revealing the reasons behind Mao's decision to intervene, numerous scholars as Whitener, Gardner and Thornton have launched different hypothesis, all tackling this situation from various perspectives.

In the light of these debates, this essay will analyse Mao's alternatives in the eve of 1950s and the possible threats that each of them faced. Starting with a historical overview of the 1949 - 1950 period and its influence upon China's internal situation at the end of the civil war, the focus will then be extended to its foreign policy, encompassing the security threats posed by the US and UN forces heading to the Yalu river and the ideological pressures of USSR and Korea .

The war which begun on 25 June 1950, initially aiming to unite the divided Korea, separated as an outcome of the 1945 Postdam conference, was shortly transformed into one between the 2 main ideologies: communism and imperialism. North Koreans' decision to cross the 38 parallel, as an attempt to unify the two sides under a communist leadership has met a rapid UN counteroffensive. Two days later, the US military forces intervened defending the the South Koreans and on 19 October 1950, the Chinese army entered as well, on the North side, converting a 6 -month regional war into an international confrontation.

In analysing China's decision to enter the conflict, one must take into account its available options in the historical context of 1949-1950. In debating upon China's decision, Chen perceived it as a mixture of 3 main factors: revolutionary nationalism - for which, any external hostility was a threat to its own national security, a self imposed mission to promote Asia and its determination to maintain the inner momentum of the Chinese revolution.( Lee, 1996, p. 743)

On a national level, Mao's main objective was to stabilise the regime he has just implemented. In order for this to happen, several economical and ideological factors had a very specific and particularly special role. From a Chinese domestic perspective, 1st of October 1949 represented the end of a long and highly damaging civil war, between the Nationalists, lead by Chian Kai-Sheck and the Communist Party, represented by Mao. As a result, the established People's Republic of China under Mao was extremely affected, facing a stagnant economy, disrupted by 10 years of foreign invasion, civil strike and severe inflation. Furthermore, the 1949'natural disaster, with floods breaking ten-year records, affected 40 million Chinese causing a 6 million lost of grain. (Whiting, 1960, p. 16) In this context, the land reforms of the The Chinese Communist Party and their transformation of the social and rural order has further encouraged the nationalist forces, who engaged in armed opposition through the central and southern province.

All these problems caused important frustrations among the Chinese population. On this background, an imperialistic US force gaining and exercising its influence in the region would have further encouraged the uprising of the counter revolutionists. This was not a risk to be easily taken by Mao. Therefore, consolidating a strong and powerful position within East Asia would have a direct effect upon the credibility of the state as an entire entity, been a further way of tackling the ideological issue.( Whiting, 1960, p. 15)

The emerging Cold War was a further cause of anxiety for the "new China" .( Whiting, 1960, p 15) The soviet Russia, as an ally, offered important political and material support. However, their agreement was one of unequal partners, and in this balance of power, China was in disadvantage.( Whiting, 1960, p. 14) Moreover, the Chinese communists were conscious of their future conflict with the imperialist American forces. Through its attempt to liberate Taiwan and due to its linkage to The Soviet Union, China was now perceived as threatening US' interests in Asia, hence, a confrontation was about to take place, sooner or later. From the areas that could allow such a confrontation: Taiwan straits, Vietnam or Korean peninsula - the latter was the most advantageous for China. .( Lee, 1996: 743)

Within the international realm, Mao's main purpose was to sustain and improve China's situation in the regional balance of power. In an attempt to counteract its disadvantage, CCP sought to establish a relationship with the US, even since the 1940s. Then, Mao and Zhou Enlai stated their willingness to have American equipment and even America generals, and they also offered to meet President Roosevelt for this. However, not receiving any reply from Washington was perceived as a real humiliation for Mao. (Yufan and Zhihai, 1990, p.94) Eventually, recognising CCP's victory within the Public Republic of China, America acknowledged the threat of a Sino-Soviet partnership in the context of the Cold War and aimed to keep China away from any linkage with The Soviet Union. For this, the Truman administration sent the American Ambassador - Leighton Stuart to have a conversation with Mao. However, the former was not impressed by the communist army entrance in the embassy at 6:45 am and decided to postpone any negotiations. ( Thornton, 2001, p. 12).

On the background of the American $3 billion of diplomatic , economic and military assistance offered to its opposition, during the civil war, Mao's disappointment with the Truman administration increased further, which lead China to the adoption of a one-sided policy towards Moscow, during 1946-1949. (Yufan and Zhihai, 1990, p.97).Making use of a diplomatic strategy, on 30 June 1049, Mao declared the China's attachment to the Soviet Union, as a reply to US' intention to dominate China. Three days later, the American reply came under the form of a 1054-page White Paper on China. This rapidly escalated into an ideological confrontation: the newly established Chinese government was criticising the White Paper nationwide and Mao himself has written 5 articles for the Xinhua News, with regard to US' policies, psychically preparing the population for an eventual confrontation. (Yufan and Zhihai, 1990, p.98). However, Mao kept avoiding Chinese military involvement and he launched some diplomatic efforts through the Soviet Union and the United Nations and through Indian diplomatic channels - an attempt to stop the UN forces at the 38th parallel.

On 15 September, Americans enter Inchon, an action to be categorised as an "armed aggression against Chinese territory" . (Yufan and Zhihai, 1990, p. 102], confirming Beijing biggest fears. Even if an American attack would not happen immediately, The US would probably establish a hostile regime on the Korean peninsula and deploy its troops alongside the Sino-Korean border to insert military pressure, which would be translated into a continuously tension for the Chinese leaders. However, once the American forces have recaptured Seoul on 26 September, and they restored the South Korean to their original position, they also considered defeating the entire North Korea and uniting the peninsula under a pro-American government. Mao's fears were turning into reality on 29 September, when President Truman authorised General Douglas MacArthur to enter North Korea. This concludes in a necessity to fight a war with US. Certainly the hardest decision to be made since the establishment of the new regime, it needed the international support of the Soviet Union. (Yufan and Zhihai, 1990, p.102)

In analysing the Sino-American relations, for the former, the latter represented both an ideological and a security threat. Hence, complex strategies were taking into account in establishing China's next action. From a geostrategic perspective, the narrow shape of the Korean peninsula and the mountainous area in North Korea , represented a real advantage, limiting the mobility of MacArthur's mechanised forces and ground fire. Moreover, the US spread of military development in 49 countries, in the context of an European - focused Cold War strategy, involved a very limited manpower to be deployed into Asia. And the lack of coordination between the UN and the US troops would be a further obstacle in reaching full effectiveness. (Yufan and Zhihai, 1990, p.106)

Nevertheless, in dealing with weaponry and with the overall nuclear threat, the Chinese logic was based on the principle of scarcity. Hence, the scarcity of the nuclear bomb implies it should not be used on peripheral areas, where the target might not have been what US was truly aiming. In endorsing his decision, Mao concluded: "it is necessarily to dispatch troops to Korea. If China is devastated in war, it only means that the liberalisation war against the KMT will last a few years longer" (Peng Dehuai cited in Yufan and Zhihai, 1990, p. 108)

An important part in taking this final decision was also President' Truman speech announcing the US intervention in defending South Korea , under the auspices of UN, and "neutralising" the Taiwan Strait by sending the Seventh Fleet to block any attempt of a communist invasion. Hence, ultimately, Mao's response was not focused of North Korea, but condemned the US attempt to deny China's control over its province of Taiwan. (Hunt, 1992, p. 458) In the worst case scenario, even a limited success would have had an impact on Washington in emphasising the determinacy of China, hence, the danger of a more costly Korean conflict. In this case, the 6 months anticipated pause of the Chinese attack was seen a moment for US to reassess their priorities, giving them the option to indicate their interest in a peaceful resolution of the conflict. (Hunt, 1992, p. 465)

However, in order to fully understand the overall picture of the China's decision-making process, the special importance of the Sino-Soviet relation in the context of Cold War, must be recognised. Moreover, one should firstly analyse the origins of such a high-degree confrontation and the role of the Soviet Union in the historical decisions. As soon as the North Korea passed the 38 parallel, the UN forces intervened with military support.

Still, a UN intervention against a communist power could not have been possible with a Soviet presence in the Security Council, having the ability to veto it. Here is when The Soviet Union, aiming for a conflict with China on its side, "set up the stage" (Thornton, 2001, p. 82), making sure that the Soviet power will miss the possibility to vote. Voicing a claim for the illegitimacy of the nationalist representative on China, The Soviets managed to create a distraction on a perfect timing. With China being denied the right to vote, the UN could take the resolution forward and intervene in the war. Two days later, the American military troops joined the peacekeeping forces, in this implementing Stalin's strategy.( Thornton, 2001, p. 82)

Although North Korea played an important part in the Soviet policies, Stalin wanted to avoid a direct confrontation with US. In this context, the Chinese involvement fit in perfectly, although the Soviet did not necessarily believe in Mao's chances against the US army. Nevertheless, they supplied their allies with air force support and promised to equip 100 Chinese divisions with Soviet weapons, to be charged at a later time.

In making his final decision, Stalin's agreement to support an assault on Taiwan was extremely important for Mao, in giving him a further incentive to support the North Korean army. In the same time, this promise also offered The Soviet Union the chance to have a certain degree of control over China. Moreover, by using the same armament for both Korean and Taiwan attack, The Soviet union got to choose how to distribute the leverage and how to prioritise his actions. This increased Russia's influence on persuading China to enter a war against the West, hence affecting its dependency on Moscow (Thornton, 2001, p. 89)

In February 1950, Mao and Stalin signed the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance, which lead to significant soviet military and economic assistance. Having the Cold war on the background, an interference in Taiwan before the break of the war would, in this case, would have been the best option for Mao, by opening new doors of negotiations between Washington and Beijing, and the worse for USSR. ( Thornton, 2001:89)

After a secret meeting on the night of 9-10 October, between Stalin and Zhou, the former emphasised the importance of avoiding Soviet intervention and postponed the air force support, under the necessity of more time for preparation. (Yufan and Zhihai, 1990,p. 110) He promised to offer training for the Chinese pilots and to convince Kim Il-Sung to set up an exile government in north-east China. (Whiting, 1960, p. 22). Returned from his delegation, Zhou announced Mao about Stalin's decision, who identified several risks. In this context, a Chinese troop attack might fail to destroy the American forces in Korea. An eventual Sino-American confrontation would bring serious collateral damages to China's economic reconstruction, and "deepened the discontent of the Chinese already unsettled by revolution". (Hunt, 1992, p.465)

After long and daunting rounds of negotiations, the date of interventions has been changed to15 and then to 19 October, when the CCP Central Committee decided that the Chinese Volunteer Army will cross the Yalu river despite the lack of Soviet air support. Mao's decision to continue the attack without the Soviet air force support impressed Stalin, which in turn, offered to increase its aid: by late 1950, they have sent 2 air divisions to defend the Yalu river bridge and the main transport line, 100 km south of the Yalu river. Overall, The Soviet Union provided CPV with weapon equipment for 60 army and 10 air divisions. It was also responsible for 80% of the CPV's ammunition. (Yufan and Zhihai, 1990,p. 110)

The consensus was of avoiding a direct challenge with US. The volunteers were to concentrate their attacks on the South Korean forces and avoid attacking the US ones. Moreover, they should also avoid a rapid advance, but establish a base of operations in the mountain region, north of Pyongyang and Wonsan. This would have given the Chinese forces enough time to prepare any other strategic action. In order to avoid any circumstances, the pilots were wearing CPV uniforms and they were instructed to identify themselves as Chinese Rusian minority subjects, in case they were captured. (Hunt, 1992, p. 463)

A further significant reason that lead to Mao's decision to intervene in the Korean conflict was the strong historical ties that he had with the Noth Korea, due to the help given during the Chinese civil war, when 80% of the KVC troops were send to north China to intervene. Although reluctant to any Chinese intervention in the initial phases of the war, on 1 October 1950, Kim Il-Sung sent a telegram to Mao, reporting the picture on the battle field and requesting for his support. This materialised in a special enlarged Politburo meeting, of several days, in which 10 top leaders made the final decision with regards to going to war. (Yufan and Zhihai, 1990, p.103). The day after, the Premier Zhou issued China's warning, by formally notifying the Indian ambassador - Panikkar - that if American troops will enter the North Korea, China would intervene in the war. (Yao Xu cited in Whiting, 1960, p. 17-18)

Moreover, from an ideological perspective, having a communist-oriented Korea in the event of an unification of China under communism would have also "furthered the safety and tranquillity of a Communist Middle Kingdom" (Lee, 1962 ,p. 192) On his cable on 2nd October with Stalin, Mao talks about his internationalist duty to rescue the Korean revolutionaries and to maintain revolutionary morale around the world in case of a counteroffensive launched by American reactionaries. The danger of a revival of reactionary sentiment in china was extremely troubling, especially since china found itself economically oppressed as a result of revolutions (Hunt, 1992, p.464) A hostile Korea would have meant having a large number of Chinese forces and resources stationed indefinitely along the 1000 - mile-long border, and economically speaking, China could not afford these military expenditures.

Overall, the Korean war, aimed to finish by Christmas and to reunify the Korean region under a communist regime turned into a large scale war, involving all the adequate tools of a conflict of such level, from thousands of troops, to dissimulation within international institutions, and the direct involvement of the great powers of the international realm: The US and The Soviet Union. This essay aimed to provide a better insight into the reason of China's decision to enter the war, decision which is often seen as the critical moment in turning a regional conflict in one of ideologies. For this, the paper was divided in several sections, starting with a historical framework of the 1949-1950 situations and continuing with the main influencing factors of that time, such as the US security threat, and the Soviet Union ideological pressure, linked with China's interest over Taiwan and the Korean historical pressure.

To conclude, China's growing tension, reinforced by the Soviet and Korean calls for assistance gave rise to a military coordination of the three countries against the UN and US peacekeepers in South Korea.


§ China's communist revolution, available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/static/special_report/1999/09/99/china_50/mao.htm Acessed on 05 December 2009

§ Hunt, M.H. (1992), "Beijing and the Korean Crisis, June 1950-June 1951", Political Science Quarterly, Volume 107, no. 3

§ Lee, C.S. (1962), "Korean Communists and Yenan", The China Quarterly, Volume 9, pp 182 - 192

§ Lee, H. Y. (1996), "Review", The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 55, No. 3, pp. 742-74

§ Thornton, R. (2001) Odd man out: Truman, Stalin, Mao, and the origins of the Korean War , Brassey's Inc (United States).

§ Yufan, H and Zhihai, Z (1990) "China's decision to enter the Korean War: History revisited", The China Quarterly, no 121, pp 94 - 115

§ Whiting, A.S. (1960), China crosses Yalu: the decision to enter the Korean war, Stanford University Press (London)

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