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To different degrees, the Chinese, Soviets, British, Indians, and the French were the biggest defenders of the “neutralization” of Indochina during the Geneva Conference of 1954. Since 1950, the leaders of India, Indonesia, and Burma had refused to recognize diplomatically either of the two Vietnams led by Ho Chi Minh and Bao Dai. All were wary of allying themselves in the Cold War now making its way violently into the region via Korea and northern Vietnam. Chinese and Vietnamese communist talk of spreading revolution further into the region did little to reassure Indians, Burmese, and Indonesians, nor did American pressure on them to join with the West to “contain” communism.

By 1953, however, Chinese strategists had begun to revise their hostile attitude to these non-communist Asian states. The reluctance of the latter to throw in their lot with the West held out the hope that the Chinese could tap into decolonization and anti-colonialism in order to improve relations with these states, and thereby thwart American attempts to turn them against Beijing on anti-communist grounds. Chinese negotiators arriving in Geneva were particularly determined to reach an accord on Indochina that would prevent the United States from replacing the French and creating a Southeast Asian anti-communist security pact. Talk was in the air of just such a grand strategy and of course the Chinese did not need to be reminded of the importance of Japan, Taiwan and South Korea as beachheads in American containment in the Far East.

Just weeks before the opening of the Geneva conference, Zhou Enlai reached an agreement with Jawaharlal Nehru over Tibet, allowing the two Asian giants to normalize their relations for the first time and embrace the five principles of co-existence of Pansheela. At a crucial juncture in the Geneva negotiations, Zhou Enlai personally travelled to New Delhi in late June 1954 to meet Pandit Nehru, promising him that Beijing would not export communism to the region and that China’s Vietnamese allies would not try to make all of Indochina communist. Zhou Enlai made good on his pledge when he recognized the reality of the royal governments in Cambodia and Laos. Zhou Enlai made a similar trip to Burma before meeting with Ho Chi Minh at Liuzhou in early July 1954. During this important meeting, Zhou Enlai informed Ho Chi Minh that the Chinese supported the emergence of Southeast Asian Nations of a “New Type”, referring to non-communist, neutral countries such as India, Burma, and Indonesia. Zhou also informed the Vietnamese that the Chinese were scaling back their support for the Indochinese revolutionary ambitions of the Vietnamese communists in Laos and Cambodia. A Vietnamese revolution, yes; an Indochinese one, no, or at least not now. The Indians in particular insisted upon this concession as a sign of Sino-Vietnamese communist good intentions towards the region. The Vietnamese agreed.

With the division of Vietnam into two provisional states at Geneva in July 1954, the north and the south were prohibited from hosting foreign military bases and from joining any type of military alliance, nor could arms be increased beyond those needed to replace outdated ones. While the Cambodian government reserved the right to solicit outside military aid, it privately promised not to allow the installation of foreign military bases on its territory. In Laos, the French were allowed to maintain two bases and a limited number of personnel, on the understanding that they too were agreed to keeping Laos neutral.

The extent of Zhou Enlai’s success in neutralizing Indochina and Southeast Asia against the Americans is still open to debate. The Americans were certainly aware of what Zhou Enlai was trying to do and the American creation of the South East Asia Treaty Organization can be seen to a large extent as a challenge to Zhou Enlai’s Asian strategy of neutralization. In the end, such neutrality was extremely fragile and would be hard to maintain as local, regional, and international actors moved to sway Indochina or parts of it towards their camp, first in Laos, then in southern Vietnam. See also GENEVA ACCORDS; JOHN FOSTER DULLES; PLAN Z.