The First Indochina War had raged, as guerrilla warfare, since 19 December 1946. From 1949, it evolved into conventional warfare, due largely to aid from the communists of the People's Republic of China ("PRC") to the north. Subsequently, the French strategy of occupying small, poorly defended outposts throughout Indochina, particularly along the Vietnamese-Chinese border, started failing. Thanks to the terrain, popular support for August Revolution and support for decolonization from bordering China and the U.S.S.R., the Viet Minh had succeeded in turning a "clandestine guerrilla movement into a powerful conventional army", following asymmetric warfare theory laid by Mao Tse Tung, something which previously had never been encountered by the western colonial powers. In October 1952, fighting around the Red River Delta spread into the Thai Highlands, resulting in the Battle of Nà Sản, at which the Viet Minh were defeated. The French used the lessons learned at Nà Sản – strong ground bases, versatile air support, and a model based on the British Burma Campaign – as the basis for their new strategy. The Viet Minh, however, remained unbeatable in the highland regions of Vietnam, and the French "could not offset the fundamental disadvantages of a roadbound army facing a hill and forest army in a country which had few roads but a great many hills and forests".
In May 1953, General Henri Navarre arrived to take command of the French forces, replacing General Raoul Salan. Navarre spoke of a new offensive spirit in Indochina – based on strong, fast-moving forces – and the media quickly took Operation Camargue to be the "practical realization" of that.
Chinese and American backing
Following the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the Viet Minh established close ties with China. It enabled the Chinese to expand their area of influence into Indochina and the Viet Minh to receive much-needed Chinese equipment and strategic planning support. From mid-1950, PRC military advisers were seconded to the Viet Minh at battalion, regimental and divisional levels. The common border meant that "China became a 'sanctuary' where the Viet Minh could be trained and refitted". When the Korean War broke out, Indochina became "an important pawn in Cold War strategy". In December 1950, the United States, concerned about growing Chinese Communist influence, started providing military aid to the French, with a first payment of US$15 million.
In the spring of 1953, the Viet Minh launched campaigns in Laos and succeeded in linking up Laotian territorial gains with their bases in north-western Vietnam. Meanwhile, the winding down of the Korean War meant that China was able "to give much more attention to its southern neighbour". Similarly, the US "released from its heavy burden in the Korean conflict ... dramatically increased its military and financial support" to the French. By June 1953, the US "had sent: 1,224 tanks and combat vehicles; 120,792 rifles and machine guns; more than 200 million rifle and machine gun cartridges; more than five million artillery projectiles; 302 boats and 304 aircraft" (by end of the war, total US aid amounted to nearly four billion dollars).