Whitlam took political courage to China

Forty years on, Australian politicians must emulate Whitlam's vision and imagination if they are to manage competing interests in China and the US.

When Gough Whitlam went to Communist China in 1971 as leader of the opposition, the Cold War was in full swing. Australian diggers were fighting alongside American GIs in the jungles of Vietnam against the Chinese-backed Viet Cong.

There was widespread fear of Red China in Australia. Prime Minister Robert Menzies captured the zeitgeist at the time, referring to “the downward thrust of Communist China between the Indian and Pacific oceans”. Liberal Prime Minister William McMahon blasted Whitlam’s China visit in July, accusing him of being a pawn of Communist China and a spokesman for the enemy being fought in Vietnam.

Little did McMahon know that that the US secretary of state Henry Kissinger had just led a highly secret mission to Beijing to explore the possibility of a historic visit of the US President Richard Nixon. Only days after McMahon blasted Whitlam, the White House announced Nixon’s visit to China, leaving the Prime Minister exposed and hugely embarrassed.

There is little doubt Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972 was a historic event of worldwide significance. Similarly for Australia, Whitlam’s decision to visit in China is a historic milestone for the bilateral relations. At the time, it required enormous political courage to reach out to an ideological foe behind the bamboo curtain.

It was arguably easier for Nixon, a staunch anti-Communist Republican president, to visit Beijing, than for a progressive Labor leader who was opposed to Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. You only need to look at the liberal accusation of mandarin-speaking Kevin Rudd of being a Manchurian candidate a few years ago to appreciate the political risks.

Whitlam’s momentous decision to reach out to China during the depth of Cold War kickstarted the ever-growing relationship with the country’s most important economic partner. “Mr Whitlam established diplomatic relations with China and was the first Australian leader to visit the country. That is an enduring legacy,” said Prime Minister Abbott.

Dr Stephen Fitzgerald, Australia’s first ambassador to China who also accompanied Whitlam to China, lauded his diplomatic skills – particulalry in a meeting with Chinese premier Zhou who was widely considered to be one of China’s best diplomats. “I don’t believe there was anyone with the diplomatic skills he displayed under pressure in that meeting with Zhou," he says.

Though Whitlam was dead keen on establishing relations with China, he was steadfast in his defence of the ANZUS Treaty, which has been the cornerstone of Australia’s security policy since the end of the Second World War. The Chinese accepted his argument that the ANZUS was defensive in nature and not aimed at China.

Fitzgerald, one of Australia’s foremost experts on China, says Whitlam’s contribution to Australian foreign policy was not simply about re-establishing a diplomatic relationship with China. It was, in fact, about pursuing a more active engagement with Asia and an independent Australian foreign policy within the framework of the US alliance.

Before Whitlam’s rapprochement with China, Australia’s relationship with Asia was largely based on fear and a sense of superiority. 

The fear of the spread of Asian communism in Australia’s neighbourhood and even the most enlightened Asia policy of the time -- the much lauded Colombo Plan -- was conceived as an instrument to fight communism.

Politicians and the Australian public saw Asia as a sea of poverty, instability and revolution. “White Australia was an inescapable statement of what Australia thought about Asia,” says Fitzgerald. One of Whitlam’s great foreign policy legacies was to tackle this fear head on through political courage as well as personal leadership.

“He believed that to change the relationship with Asia in substance there had to be a change in the way Australians thought and felt about it, from negative to positive. Not positive about communism, but certainly positive about acceptance of Asian states with different social systems,” according to Fitzgerald’s paper ‘The coup that laid the fear of China’.

Whitlam also wanted to pursue a more independent foreign policy for Australia within the alliance framework. For a long time, Australia acted like a client state of the US and many may still recall Harold Holt’s famous quip “All the way with LBJ”. Whitlam believed strongly that a more independent foreign policy towards Asia would put Australia in a stronger position to influence events in the region.

At a time when Australia is trying to manage the competing interests of closer economic ties with China and an ever stronger security alliance with the United States, Australian politicians and policymakers need the imagination and vision of a Whitlam to make this country’s Asia engagement policy a success.