Being a dramatic part of the Cold War, the Korean War resulted in a considerable number of casualties and the prominent damage of Sino-American relations. Since then, many researchers have attempted to study the events. Despite the ubiquitous effort, the issue of the motivation of the People’s Republic of China to participate in the war is still widely discussed and is somewhat controversial.
Why did the People’s Republic of China enter the Korean War? Some claim that the primary motivation for the PRC was the willingness to successfully confront the US and prove the power of the communists’ revolution. Others believe that the Chinese acted with the sole purpose of mitigating the threat in the face of the United States. However, the Soviet Union’s significant influence and the inevitability of Sino-American armed conflict in the Korean peninsula probably were the primary reasons behind China entering the Korean War. China’s presence in the war was beneficial for Joseph Stalin, and the Chinese used the war as a peripheral tool in battling the United States.
The Chinese are believed to have been motivated to enter the war by various factors. Expansionist tendencies, Chinese xenophobic attitudes, the communist ideology, and security concerns could have contributed to the Chinese final decision.1 Between 1946 and 1949, Sino-American relations weakened, and Mao Zedong anticipated threat on behalf of the US.2 Gradually, the PRC started leaning toward the Soviet Union, thus ending productive relations with the Americans. However, when the war began, China did not enter it immediately. Only when America took dangerous actions supplying the Republic of China in Taiwan, did the leaders of the PRC treat it as armed aggression against the Chinese territory. In other words, for leaders, it was a confirmation of the American threat.
Although security concerns about the possible American invasion are claimed to be the primary reason for the PRC entering the Korean War, some researchers share an opposite opinion. For instance, “the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance stated that ‘all-out’ support would be provided by the Soviet Union if China was involved in military confrontations.”3 Therefore, it was more reasonable and safer for the PRC to stay away from the Korean War since, in the case of American invasion or any military action against China, the Soviet Union guaranteed its full support.
Motivations behind the PRC Entering the Korean War
Security concerns did play an essential role in the Chinese final decision, however. The US army’s dislocation in the Taiwan strait meant a threat to the Chinese borders. Thus, the PRC realized that, although the Soviets would support China in case of invasion, it would not send troops to liberate Taiwan and fight against internal opposition forces established by the US presence. The Communist Party of China (CCP) leaders hoped to create a robust image of power by sending troops to fight the US forces and prevent their invasion of the border regions. Thus, entering the Korean War served as an essential political move to prevent the rival from threatening China’s domestic security and unity.
The outbreak of the Korean War was not surprising for the leaders of China and the Soviet Union. Although it is complicated to make an assured judgment, Kim Il-sung’s intention was known in advance.4 Although there is no evidence that Mao Zedong and CCP leaders actively supported the plans of Kim Il-sung, China certainly took some part in the preparation of the North Korean invasion.
Furthermore, there is data proving that China was carefully prepared for entering the Korean War for four months since its beginning. Researchers note that “it is probable that China, contrary to its official claim, was firmly determined to prompt a showdown with ‘American imperialism’ through its participation in the War.”5 Therefore, it is possible to claim that China’s entering the war was a more complicated and multi-targeted action than it seems to be.
Besides, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai treated liberating Taiwan and participating in the war as an opportunity to unify the entire territory of China, which would also contribute to ending the Chinese Revolution. One more piece of evidence is that a wide range of activities aimed at developing military capabilities was undertaken systematically before the beginning of the war. It is possible to conclude that the leaders of China were taking aggressive steps in military improvements and the promotion of its participation in the war.
The Influence of the Soviet Union
The Soviet Union and its leader, Joseph Stalin, played a crucial role in the Korean War. First and foremost, the leader of Northern Korea Kim Il-sung was chosen and assigned to his position by the Soviet Union. Since 1948 he had been sending telegrams to Stalin requesting permission to invade South Korea.6 Therefore, it is apparent that Stalin was aware of this intention. Historians also note that he convinced Kim Il-sung to plot the attack.7
Simultaneously, Stalin urged Mao Zedong to promise to provide North Korea with troops in case of an emergency, without mentioning the intention of Kim Il-sung.8 Thus, the leader of the Soviet Union manipulated two other leaders while protecting his own interests. The main intention of Stalin was to weaken the US economy, which would make Americans soften their European stance and allow Stalin to advance Soviet positions in Europe. Stalin successfully used Mao Zedong’s fear of the American invasion to push the PRC into the Korean War.
Crisis in Sino-American Relations
After the Chinese Civil War ended in 1949, resulting in communists winning and establishing the PRC, the US refused to acknowledge the PRC and kept supporting the leaders of Taiwan instead. Consequently, the confrontation between the PRC and the US began and lasted for approximately 30 years. The Korean War contributed significantly to strengthening and prolonging the confrontation. Researchers note that the US treated the Soviet Union as one of the strongest political rivals.9
Therefore, the American international position was hit by the fact that one of the largest populations of the Earth and potentially one of the most powerful countries joined the enemy’s alliance. Moreover, the North Korean attack was part of the Soviet strategy of establishing international communism, which threatened American national interests and contradicted the US global policy principles and objectives.10 Thus, America had its reasons to support and defend the Republic of China, and, in the eyes of the CCP, became a severe threat to the PRC.
In addition, there was a drastic difference between Chinese and American political, economic, and social ideologies. Researchers note that that generation of the US policymakers tended to believe in unique American destiny in terms of the world structure, which made them traditionalists, and hostile towards revolutionary changes.11 Therefore, Americans assumed that their values, beliefs, and objectives held universal significance.
Chinese ideology of that time was completely different, especially with the establishment of the PRC. It was aimed at rebooting the Chinese internal and foreign policies.12 According to the communists’ ideology, it could be reached only by following the revolutionary processes.13 In summary, the US leaders and policymakers were not eager to accept new ideas and the initiatives of the PRC. Consequently, American leaders were also unwilling and somehow unable to comprehend the environment in which the PRC leaders made decisions.
Although Truman’s administration implemented and maintained a policy of disengagement and non-intervention, Mao Zedong, having observed considerable military and economic aid provided by the US to the Republic of China, became suspicious. Therefore, at the beginning of 1949, Mao Zedong began to consider the likelihood of American intervention as high. On 30 June 1949, Mao Zedong “denounced the US as an imperialistic power seeking to dominate China and announced that China would now ‘lean to the side’ of the Soviet Union”.14 Thus, it is apparent that the PRC treated the US invasion as highly possible, and, aiming to defend Chinese borders and autonomy, fell under the considerable influence of the Soviet Union.
Benefits of Entering the Korean War
Korea was a big challenge for the United States because much of the resources and effort were invested in advancing positions in Europe. Besides, the allies of the US demonstrated reluctance toward participating in the Sino-American conflict. Therefore, one of the most critical benefits for the PRC was the fact that the United States was not able to undertake its military actions effectively because of limited resources in terms of troops and machinery.
The second benefit was the inability of the United States to use its primary military weapon at its full potential. According to Yufan and Zhihai, “the scarcity of atomic bombs meant that it would be hard for Truman to use them in a peripheral area since they originally intended primarily to check the Soviet Union”.15 Therefore, it was claimed to be very unlikely that the US would use the atomic bomb even if they decided to interfere in the Korean War.16 This situation was advantageous for the CCP and Mao Zedong.
There was also a geographical advantage in the hands of the PRC. Due to specific characteristics of the terrain on the Korean peninsula and North Korean mountainous areas, the mobility of the US forces was expected to be significantly limited. Thus, it would contribute to the successful defensive actions of the PRC. Also, the supply chain route for the resources of the PRC was significantly shorter than what Americans had.
Therefore, it was logical for the PRC to choose Korea and the Korean War as a suitable place to fight against the US, which, they believed, was necessary. Researchers note that Mao Zedong considered the potential inability of the PRC to destroy the US troops in Korea as the worst case possible since it could lead to a full-scale Sino-American War.17 However, many leaders of the CCP treated this scenario as some sacrifice needed to be made for the long-term national benefit and interests.
To summarize, Chinese participation in the Korean War was not a matter of a single purpose. The PRC had a plethora of reasons to intervene, and the scientific community has conflicting views on the issue. According to many facts presented in this paper, however, it can be considered that the Soviet Union’s manipulative actions were among the reasons why Mao Zedong proceeded with military confrontation.
Also, Sino-American relations were facing a crisis after the refusal of the United States to confess the legitimacy of the CCP and the PRC. The deteriorating effect in the relations was played by the fact that Truman’s administration started supporting the Republic of China. These growing tensions between the PRC and the United States, Joseph Stalin’s influence, the likelihood of the US invasion, and military advantage over the opponents were the leading reasons behind the PRC entering the Korean War.
Jian, Chen. The Sino-Soviet Alliance and China’s Entry into the Korean War. Washington: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 1992.
Jian, Chen. China’s Road to the Korean War: The Making of the Sino-American Confrontation. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.
Kim, Jiye. “China’s Wars and Strategies: Looking Back at the Korean War and the Sino-Indian War.” Strategic Analysis 42, no. 2 (2018): 119-133.
Ryan, Mark A. Chinese Attitudes Toward Nuclear Weapons: China and the United States During the Korean War. New York: Routledge, 2018.
Stueck, William, ed. The Korean War in World History. Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2010.
Yasuda, Jun. “A Survey: China and the Korean War.” Social Science Japan Journal, no. 1 (1998): 71-83.
Yufan, Hao, and Zhai Zhihai. “China’s Decision to Enter the Korean War: History Revisited.” The China Quarterly, no. 121 (1990): 94-115.
Zhou, Bangning. “Explaining China’s Intervention in the Korean War in 1950.” Interstate-Journal of International Affairs 2014, no. 1 (2015): 1-2.
- Hao Yufan and Zhai Zhihai, “China’s Decision to Enter the Korean War: History Revisited,” The China Quarterly, no. 121 (1990): 97-101.
- Yufan and Zhihai, “China’s Decision to Enter the Korean War: History Revisited,” 99.
- Bangning Zhou, “Explaining China’s Intervention in the Korean War in 1950,” Interstate-Journal of International Affairs 2014, no. 1 (2015): 1.
- Chen Jian, China’s Road to the Korean War: The Making of the Sino-American Confrontation (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 27.
- Jun Yasuda, “A Survey: China and the Korean War,” Social Science Japan Journal, no. 1 (1998): 74.
- Chen Jian, The Sino-Soviet Alliance and China’s Entry into the Korean War (Washington: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 1992), 32.
- Jian, The Sino-Soviet Alliance and China’s Entry into the Korean War, 34.
- Jian, 34.
- Jian, China’s Road to the Korean War: The Making of the Sino-American Confrontation, 61.
- Yufan and Zhihai, “China’s Decision to Enter the Korean War: History Revisited,” 97.
- William Stueck, The Korean War in World History (Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2010), 41.
- Jiye Kim, “China’s Wars and Strategies: Looking Back at the Korean War and the Sino-Indian War,” Strategic Analysis 42, no. 2 (2018): 130.
- Kim, “China’s Wars and Strategies: Looking Back at the Korean War and the Sino-Indian War,” 130.
- Yufan and Zhihai, “China’s Decision to Enter the Korean War: History Revisited,” 97.
- Yufan and Zhihai, 107.
- Mark A. Ryan, Chinese Attitudes Toward Nuclear Weapons: China and the United States During the Korean War (New York: Routledge, 2018), 23.
- Chen Jian, China’s Road to the Korean War: The Making of the Sino-American Confrontation, 51.