“Opening the Australian mind”: 50 years of Australia-China relations

Dec 10, 2022
Gough Whitlam in China.

I’d like to offer a reflection on where we started out, Australia with China, and what I think we need to do now.

I have always seen our establishment of relations with China as part, and a very important part, of Australia’s coming to terms with the whole Asian region – with a habitat in which no other country except New Zealand was Anglo or European – and accepting that we were part of that habitat.

This demanded a lot of adjustment in social attitudes and learning in Australia, for example in the study of Asian societies in our schools and universities and teaching Chinese and other Asian languages. So, it’s against that kind of context that I see both the plunge in relations in the more recent past, and the modest steps towards a rebalancing since May of this year.

For Australia, establishing relations with China in 1972 was of course a centrepiece in a bold new direction in our foreign policy. It was also a challenge in domestic politics, to the idea of ‘China as enemy and threat’ that had featured in the Coalition government’s electioneering for two decades.

For Gough Whitlam, recognition of China was also seen in a wider context – on the one hand a new and warm relationship with what was then known as the ‘third world’, and on the other, change in Australian social attitudes and a widening of our intellectual horizons.

Change was already under way when he came to office, as seen in popular opposition to the Vietnam War and a growing rejection of the White Australia policy. But his government also oversaw a raft of new social policies that facilitated and accelerated change in many fields including the arts and education. This encouraged a growing openness to our Asian neighbourhood, and acceptance of Asian immigration and the idea of a multicultural society.

There was an opening of the Australian mind, and the new relationship with China was integral in that.

For China, of course, Australia was not integral to its foreign policy in the same way. But diplomatic relations with Australia were part of a new momentum led by Premier Zhou Enlai, for mending and extending China’s external relations with all countries, following the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, and the isolation of China during that movement.

This began a process of opening up China to the world and the world to China.

These developments in our two countries, coming together, produced an unusual dynamic in our bilateral relations, which continued for almost the next thirty years. There was an interesting rapport between Chinese and Australian leaders, and in the mid-eighties, it was even reported that the US and British ambassadors in Beijing complained that Chinese leaders spent more time thinking about Australia than any other country.

Despite our different political systems and our differences and disagreements, sometimes quite strong, we could agree to disagree and move on. And our relationship also became a stabilising factor in regional affairs.

Long before we formally established a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2014, back in the 1980s and 90s there was a strong sense, on both sides, including at the highest levels, that we were travelling a road of genuine partnership, and that this was to the benefit of the people in both countries.

It is this latter, this sense of sharing and partnership, I believe, which has been the biggest loss from the plunge in relations in recent years, and this is serious and not easy to redress.

Significantly, on the Australian side, that change in the approach to China has a wider context. Starting in the early years of this century, interest in Asia, particularly Southeast Asia and ASEAN, fell into decline. This decline took its lead from the messages and signalling of government, with a not very effective swing back under the Labor governments of Gillard and Rudd. There was a dramatic fall in the numbers studying Asian languages and societies, and a very visible loss of interest in the region by the mainstream media.

Attitudes to immigration became less positive, and the incidence of discrimination and racism towards non-European people rose significantly.

In the years up to the recent change of government, what has been described by one analyst as ‘Bad China’ became a centrepiece and driver of government rhetoric on foreign relations, and this in turn infected Australian public opinion, with polls reporting increasingly negative public attitudes to China.

When you take all these things together, it was like a counter-current to the opening of Australia championed by Whitlam. Just as having diplomatic relations with China fifty years ago was a central element in the opening of the Australian mind, so now, our confrontation with China has become central in a context of a certain turning inward, a certain closing of the Australian mind at the government and official level, which has washed into public opinion.

Now that we have a will, on both sides, transactional areas of the relationship can be repaired. But reviving that strong sense of partnership and shared purpose in our bilateral relations and in regional affairs will be harder and take longer.

But revive it we must, and the trust which is its foundation and guarantee, for the good of our countries and people, and the region. I think there’s cause for us to be a bit optimistic.

First, because we’ve done it before. And I witnessed that at close quarters. We must remember that our political systems and beliefs in 1972 were vastly different then, as they are now. The obstacles within and without on both sides were perhaps more formidable then. And the rhetoric about China in Australia was probably more negative and nastier than it has become in recent years. But we can do it again.

Following the Whitlam visit to China in 1971, I published a short booklet, with the title Talking with China, to highlight how momentous was just the fact of us talking, and yet at the same time how ordinary. All it had taken was for the two sides to agree to sit down and talk together. We are now doing that again, and both sides have signalled a commitment to continue, with diplomacy now the operative approach to the way we manage our relations.

The second reason why I think we can be a bit hopeful is that below the radar of political and official rhetoric and positioning, there has been a huge amount of continuing exchange and collaboration between our two countries, some of it actually facilitated by government.

Not just in trade and business, but across the board, from science and technology and research, to health, education and the arts, NGO collaboration, sister-city relations and much more.

As the anti-China rhetoric was building in Australia, the government actually established the National Foundation for Australia-China Relations, replacing the Australia-China Council but substantially better funded.

The Foundation supports but a very small proportion of bilateral people-to-people and institutional connection, but when you look at what it is supporting you can see something of the range of Australia-China interaction. And when the Foundation advertises grants, it is inundated by applications, which gives you an idea of the grassroots momentum, and the goodwill, for an ongoing partnership between our two countries.

There remains the issue of the context. I can’t speak for the Chinese side, but on the Australian side, as Gough Whitlam well understood, a change like that which seems to be under way now, needs to be grounded in public support. What’s required from government now is an explicit policy to change and inform the narrative, the messages it sends to the Australian people. Not just with a speech here or a press release there. It has to be sustained, and underpinned with constructive policies and programs.

Not only about China but about the broader horizons – encouraging renewed interest in Asia particularly Southeast Asia, driving a revival in the study of Asian languages and societies and supporting that with adequate funding, actively promoting the contribution of immigrant communities to our society, and strong and sustained condemnation of discrimination and racism, particularly in relation to our Chinese communities.

If we are to succeed in a rebalancing of the Australia-China relationship, it must be grounded in a context that such policy and such messaging can engender. A new opening of Australia, a new opening of the Australian mind.

I think we can be thankful that the two governments have made a start, and optimistic.

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