Whitlam confirmed ‘great man’ theory

Jun 29, 2021

If someone had said at the start of the year I would be going to China, Gough Whitlam’s aide Graham Freudenberg recalled, I would have said going to the moon would be more likely.

There was something other-worldly about the country the Whitlam party entered on July 2, 1971, crossing the border from Hong Kong. The impoverished, bankrupt land outside was more like North Korea at its most sequestered than China today.

Across the nation there was not a single private restaurant or shop. None of the workers on bikes or horse-drawn carts had the right to own land or a flat. They needed party permission to move to another city. The economy was smaller than Australia’s. Mao Zedong had speculated about creating urban communes and abolishing currency. The Cultural Revolution launched in 1966 may have caused three million deaths.

China’s international personality was ideological. It formally supported revolutionary movements in Southeast Asia. It saw its enemies as Soviet revisionism, US imperialism, Japanese militarism. It stood outside any world order.

Whitlam’s decision to visit broke a political veto. It was based on epic confidence, especially compared with today’s pallid politics. It is the only example of Australia’s international personality being changed from the opposition benches. “It was a personal commitment to the fray, from opposition,” adviser and later ambassador Stephen FitzGerald said. “An expedition of bravado and exposure, but great political judgment and luck.”

This was a case where “great man” theory gets confirmed. Any other Labor leader from the party’s Right would have nervously cleaved to bipartisanship, even if it meant ceding all security policy to a government that had committed us to Vietnam and had no notion of Australia except as perky little alliance partner.

But with the retirement of Robert Menzies in 1966 Whitlam dominated parliament. His honed advocacy skills – from a platform or TV studio and as a scribe (as in his articles on his trip in The Australian) – liberated him to think grandly and be bold. Even with the Vietnam war raging he had the supreme assurance to fly to China and talk a bilateral relationship without running it past the US ambassador in Canberra, which might be the first thought of both sides of politics today.

His initiative provides an example of Australia moving in advance of US policy, not in its slipstream, and showing that Australia under the architecture of ANZUS might be dexterous and original.

The attacks came. Liberal prime minister Billy McMahon said Whitlam’s meeting with Chinese premier Zhou Enlai was “an impertinence to the United States, and it is not likely to be forgotten by the American administration”. The next day brought the bombshell news that US national security adviser Henry Kissinger had arrived in China on July 9.

But this joke, the most exquisite in our political history, is loaded with a serious warning: great powers are cold monsters, to quote French president Charles de Gaulle, and when executing a quick policy shift will put their own interests above the tender sensitivities of allies – in this case, Australia and Japan.

A Coalition cabinet had clung to the wisdom that Australia could not move on China policy until the US did. This naive alliance loyalty even required Canberra to suffer loss of wheat markets to Canada, which had recognised China in 1970. This was a pre-echo of today’s paradox in which our bogan diplomacy has seen our share of food and beverage exports to China fall from 5.6 per cent to 3.5 per cent, but those of other Five Eyes nations rise from 22 per cent to 35 per cent. US produce sales are booming.

Whitlam’s meeting with Zhou reads as a masterclass. Whitlam resisted when Zhou attempted to draw him into criticism of the US. Whitlam said the 1951 ANZUS Treaty was not directed at China and had its origins in Australia seeking protection from a revival of Japanese militarism. In the face of China’s paranoia about Japan he stood firm and said, “It is the most wealthy and developed country that will not have anything to do with nuclear weapons. We think this is reassuring.”

Reading the text today, one hears a confident Australian voice trading strategic assessments with the world’s senior statesman, compromising none of our values or interests. And with easy charm. You are young, said Zhou. I’m the age you were at the Geneva Conference, said Whitlam.

Several days later, after US president Richard Nixon’s visit was announced, Whitlam was able to say, “Australia as a nation looks less flat-footed, less ignorant, less obscurantist, less imitative … than she would have otherwise.”

It’s not hard to imagine Whitlam’s eloquence today supporting the autonomous legal system in Hong Kong or the lifting of repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang, not least because Whitlam as a liberal internationalist was drawn to international instruments. But he would have integrated these strictures in a comprehensive policy. And, one may add, without the macho wrongheadedness that has us now the only US ally talking about “war drums”, stationing forces in Guam and Okinawa and sending forth “our warriors”.

Whitlam would have confidently used the Quad as a classic hedging device and an opportunity for deeper engagement with valued Asian partners India and Japan.

Diplomacy is about keeping possibility alive, not closing off future options – with the grey, frigid China of Mao locked in poverty or the assertive China of today with the world’s biggest economy powered by domestic demand and an astonishing lead in advanced technology.

What if China does not implode, even though every third edition of American magazine Foreign Affairs assures us it will? What if US competition tires of a quest for something as vague as “dominance” and draws up short of cold war? Our Washington embassy is good at lapel badges and golf days but as bad at identifying possibility as when Nixon and Kissinger were quietly preparing their revolution in China policy.

The respected former head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Peter Varghese, said last week that China cannot be decoupled from the global economy or excluded from the search for solutions to global problems. He said: “China is the strategic competitor of the US but that does not automatically make it the strategic competitor of Australia.” They could be talking points for a Whitlam-style summit based on the world as it is, not as we would want it to be, and the creative openings for a middle power, allied but urbane, and not flat-footed.

This article has been republished from The Australian. Permission to republish was received from Bob Carr

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