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The Whitlam visit to China 50 years on

Published 05 Dec 2021

On Tuesday 30 November, the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW held an event to mark the 50th anniversary of the visit to Beijing by Gough Whitlam, then leader of the opposition in the Australian parliament. The Institute was addressed by Mr Zhao Wenfei, Deputy Consul General at the Chinese Consulate General in Sydney, and Mr Peter Phillips, former diplomat and China political and strategic analyst in the Office of National Assessments.

Peter opened the event by contextualising Australia and China’s contemporary relationship through an examination of Australia’s conception of China as an international threat, stemming from a lack of understanding and trust. He quoted Whitlam:

“One of the great troubles between China and the West is that we expect China to believe the best about our statements of intentions while we choose to believe the worst about hers. We expect understanding for our own fears, but we have never tried to understand hers. We have been obsessed about our own historical experience, but we scoff at China’s obsession with her own experience.”

Whitlam’s 1971 visit established a basis for increasingly complex bilateral relations between China and Australia. It was also part of wider international developments: Peter placed a large focus on the timing, noting that much of the success of the visit was due to this. Whitlam’s correspondence with Zhou Enlai, First Premier of the People’s Republic of China, secured a meeting for the first week of July 1971. As Peter explained, this was opportune: unknown to the Australians, China and the US were moving quietly towards establishing relations. In what is referred to as “ping-pong diplomacy”, China had extended an invitation to the American international ping-pong team, then in Japan, to visit China. This catalysed relations between the US and China: President Nixon requested a meeting between Dr Henry Kissinger, his National Security Advisor, and Zhou Enlai, which took place from 9 to 11 July 1971 – in the week after the Whitlam visit – on Kissinger’s way back from Pakistan. On 15 July Nixon broadcast his announcement that he would visit China as the US President. The Whitlam visit, despite savage criticism from the conservative side of politics in Australia, was consistent with these US moves.

Prime Minister McMahon‘s response to the Whitlam visit was to state that Australia must not become pawns to the “Communist power”. He said “China has been a political asset to the Liberal Party and will continue to be an asset for some time” (i.e. as a basis for criticising the Labor approach). But Whitlam defeated McMahon and became Prime Minister in 1972; he oversaw a return to Asia, recognition of the People’s Republic of China, an end to Australian involvement in the Vietnam war and the opening of Australia’s Embassy in Beijing in 1973. Subsequent Prime Ministers including Malcolm Fraser, John Howard and Paul Keating had sustained and developed relations with China, which had however now declined.

Mr Zhao began his address by noting that friendly exchanges and practical cooperation between the two countries have been expanding ever since 1971. Mr Zhao acknowledged the foresight of Australia and the US: before relations existed, China was a mysterious place to much of the Western world. He argued that Australia and China should follow the historic trend and promote healthy relations. His presentation of Australian-Chinese relations was based on four words: trust, respect, reciprocity, exchange.

 Regarding trust, Mr Zhao explained that China is perceived in much Australian opinion as Australia’s biggest threat, rooted in a fear of Chinese interference in Australia’s domestic affairs as well as its regional role. However, he stated that these accusations are inconsistent with the facts and truth, that China does not have any hidden ambition; they only want to develop and better Chinese life and have never sought to change Australia’s political system or internal affairs. He hoped that in the future, Australia would perceive China’s strategic diplomacy with a rational view.

On respect, Mr Zhao commented that fifty years ago, when Whitlam first visited the country, the differences between the two nations may have been greater than they are today, but that did not stop the visit. He criticised the contemporary “megaphone diplomacy” that is placing wrongful allegations and bias on China.

In discussing reciprocity, he stated that pragmatic operations are the foundation and driving force for all mutually beneficial cooperation. China’s investment in Australia has exceeded 40 billion dollars, and accounts for one third of Australian exports.

Mr Zhao also discussed the benefits of people-to-people exchange. He commented that previously, Australia and China found each other mysterious, but in the contemporary context that has changed; we visit each other often, with Australia receiving more than 1.4 million annual tourists from China (pre-pandemic). Now, Mandarin is the second most widely spoken language in Australia.

In their closing remarks, Peter acknowledged the positive step taken by the Chinese government, and in particular the Embassy and Consulate General in Australia, in engaging with media outlets and making senior spokespersons available. Mr Zhao replied to Peter’s comment by stating that it was the responsibility of the Embassy and Consulate General to promote mutual understanding and friendly exchanges between the nations. He added Australia and China need to improve communication and engagement to present the real and true China to the Australia media and public.

In response to questions Peter said that it would be highly desirable for China to join the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and for Australia to actively support this. Chinese membership of the TPP would be to the overall advantage of world trade. Mr Zhao responded that, over the past 40 years, China’s development has benefited from globalisation and that China always supports any initiative for arrangements that contribute to regional integration and free trade. He added that China had already applied to join the TPP and that “we are ready to talk to various parties, including the Australian side, in this regard”.

Further questions explored the impacts of Xi Jin Ping’s rule on China-Australia relations, the current state and quality of media reporting on China and Australia and the concerns about the strategic objectives of the Soviet Union that underlay Whitlam and Fraser’s desire to strengthen relations with China.

Asked what action is required from Australia and China to re-establish high level diplomatic contact, Mr Zhao said that the responsibility rests with Australia. He argued that the crux of bilateral setbacks and difficulties stem from Australia’s undermining of China’s core interests. China and Australia should not hold a dialogue just for the sake of dialogue: China would expect substance, not empty talks. Mr Zhao reiterated the belief that healthy stable development serves the interests of both countries and that Australia and China will need to reach a consensus on the future direction of bilateral relations.

Report by Niki Beri, AIIA NSW intern


Peter’s Institute Presentation On Gough’s 1971 Trip To China