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Common(wealth) Knowledge #48: China-Australian relations, 50 years in the making

A Labor leader’s other controversial trip to Beijing.

Earlier this week, while visiting the People’s Republic of China, Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan suggested that the Prime Minister and all state and territory leaders should meet in China to prove that Australia’s relationship with China is “harmonious and productive.” Many have claimed that this is a call for National Cabinet to meet in China. However, this isn’t the first time that an Australian politician visiting China has been so controversial.

Shortly after the end of World War II, an all-out civil war erupted in China, with the communists fighting against the Republic of China. Although the Republic of China would be defeated and forced to retreat to the island of Taiwan, by the time the civil war ended on 7 December 1949, the Cold War had started. As a result, Western nations did not recognise the new PRC government, and the Republic of China was allowed to hold China’s permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council.

By 1961, the two communist world powers, the Soviet Union and the PRC, had had a falling out, in what is known as the Sino-Soviet Split. The path was now open for the West to improve relations with the PRC without having to worry about the Soviet Union.

In February 1971, Prime Minister John Gorton’s Commonwealth government decided that it needed to review its foreign policy on China, as it was beginning to look like Western relations with the PRC were thawing, which would eventually allow the PRC to take over the Chinese seat on the Security Council. However, any official interactions between Australia and the PRC had to be secret.

Two months later, Gough Whitlam, on the advice of Labor Party secretary Mick Young, reached out to the PRC government for an invitation to visit the country. On 11 May, Whitlam received an invitation. Along with a number of journalists, Whitlam visited the country on 2 July, and even met with Premier Zhou Enlai.

The new Prime Minister, William McMahon, was outraged. He claimed that this was a betrayal of Australia’s allies in South-East Asia, especially as the Vietnam War was still ongoing. But, more importantly, McMahon argued that it undermined US-Australian relations. According to the Prime Minister, this “impertinence to the leader of the United States … [would] not likely be forgotten by the American Administration.”

On 15 July, just 3 days after McMahon condemned this visit, he received a telegram from the Australian embassy in the United States. Ambassador James Plimsoll had just spoken with the US Secretary of State, William Rogers. Rogers informed him that National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, who would later serve as Secretary of State, had secretly been visiting the PRC at the same time as Whitlam, to engage in talks about normalising Chinese-American relations. Furthermore, President Richard Nixon was planning to travel there in 1972.

Angered, McMahon wrote to the US government and accused them of not consulting Australia first, thus embarrassing Australia. If Kissinger was visiting the PRC, then Whitlam wasn’t a communist sympathiser, but a revolutionary diplomat.

The McMahon government voted against a US proposal later that year for the United Nations to recognise the PRC as China. This proposal passed by 76 votes to 35, with 17 abstentions. Australia would later abstain from votes to include the PRC in other international organisations, like the International Civil Aviation Organisation.

When the Whitlam government came into power in December 1972, it discovered that the Department of Foreign Affairs had prepared extensive briefings on steps to be taken to recognise the PRC. By the end of the month, Whitlam’s government had recognised the PRC as China, and adopted the One China policy.

Whitlam’s decision to visit Beijing, and the subsequent embarrassment of the McMahon government, is one reason why Labor, under his leadership, managed to oust the Liberal government in 1972, ending more than two decades of Liberal control.

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