Playing the China Card?: Revisiting France’s Recognition of Communist China, 1963–1964
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Playing the China Card?
Revisiting France’s Recognition of Communist China, 1963–1964


On 27 January 1964, France and the People's Republic of China (PRC) officially established diplomatic relations, prompting The Observer of London to comment a few days later that "Charles de Gaulle has entered the Asian stage like a diplomatic ice-breaker."1 This was the first time since 1950 that a major power had recognized the PRC.2 The French initiative caused an international uproar and generated extensive debate about the motivations of French President Charles de Gaulle. Many scholars have accepted the general's claim—expressed during his press conference of 31 January 1964—that he was driven by the "weight of evidence and reason."3 Fifteen years after the Communist victory in the Chinese civil war, it was becoming more and more absurd to ignore the existing regime.

What else de Gaulle was trying to achieve through the recognition of Communist China is less certain, however. Some scholars have suggested that the general mainly wanted to show that France could play a prominent role on the international scene and deal with all states regardless of their regimes.4 Other authors emphasize de Gaulle's attempt to strengthen France's position vis-à-vis the superpowers, using China as a fulcrum between the United States [End Page 52] and the Soviet Union.5 A third school of thought is that de Gaulle was interested only in opposing Washington. By normalizing relations with Beijing, he was sending a signal to Moscow that France could be taken seriously and that he wanted to improve relations.6 Finally, some have claimed that the general's motives were more complex. He believed that the acute conflict between Moscow and Beijing guaranteed the independence of the PRC's foreign policy and that China's influence in Southeast Asia meant that closer Sino-French ties would allow France to play a mediating role in the conflict in Indochina, thereby extending its influence in the region.7

Despite the merits of the existing literature, no fully satisfactory account of France's recognition of the PRC is yet available. This important episode has often been treated in a rather superficial manner. Many scholars have depicted the recognition of China as a simple (if spectacular) act and have failed to show how de Gaulle tried to give more impact to his move, how he carefully planned it, and what he was expecting from it.8 Action, for the general, was always best if it came after "long patience."9 Nor was de Gaulle alone in this matter. Although the president was the driving force behind France's policy toward China, the influence of other actors in fostering the Sino- French rapprochement is also crucial to understand. Besides the obvious fact that the Chinese themselves were not passive in the whole affair, this article demonstrates that economic contacts between Chinese officials and French businessmen proved a useful forum for contacts between the two states.

Although grand strategy considerations and developments in the international system, especially the emerging nuclear détente between the Anglo-Saxon [End Page 53] powers and the Soviet Union, facilitated the rapprochement between Paris and Beijing, these factors did not determine the final timing of de Gaulle's secret initiative vis-à-vis Communist China. The literature has not properly addressed the question of timing, even though it was always an integral part of Gaullist strategy. Why did de Gaulle wait until the end of the summer of 1963 to make his move, when evidence suggests that he wanted and would have been able to recognize Communist China in 1962? This article shows that, in the final instance, regional developments in Southeast Asia—in particular the possibility of achieving a political solution in Vietnam and allowing France once again to play a role in the region—convinced the French president that he needed to act, and act fast. De Gaulle believed that there "is no political reality in Asia concerning Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, or India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Burma, Korea or Soviet Russia or Japan which does not include or involve China. . . . Thus, it would be impossible to have an agreement...