Whitlam’s Visit Decisive In Our View of China, and Ourselves

01 July 2021

As much of the world’s attention is consumed by the implications of Xi Jinping’s more assertive China, there is a valuable lesson offered by an anniversary we commemorate this month.

On 3 July 1971, while still leader of the opposition, Gough Whitlam landed in Beijing, to discuss the terms of a Labor government’s recognition of the People’s Republic of China.

The visit had been the subject of overwrought attacks by the Liberal prime minister, William McMahon, who accused Whitlam of becoming a “spokesman for those against whom [Australian soldiers] are fighting” in Vietnam and of “abandoning Taiwan”.

Whitlam’s initiative heralded a more independent Australian foreign policy – independence described by McMahon as “an impertinence to the leader of the United States” that wouldn’t be forgotten.

But as it soon turned out, the United States was focused on its own independent foreign policy. Before Whitlam had even landed back in Australia, another seismic event had shattered the assumptions of the times: Henry Kissinger’s visit to Beijing, which presaged Richard Nixon’s own visit the following year.

There was nothing sentimental about these parallel moves by Whitlam and Nixon, and as we mark their half century we shouldn’t be sentimental about them either. They were based on hard assessments of each country’s interests.

Whitlam held that it defied reason to ignore the political leaders of a quarter of the world’s population.

He had begun a decisive shift in Australia’s world view, putting our region at the centre, alongside the multilateralism championed a generation earlier by Doc Evatt.

Until then, the White Australia policy still lingered in our outlook and sullied our reputation. Whitlam’s China adviser – and Australia’s first ambassador to Beijing – Stephen FitzGerald observes that our most intense postwar engagements in the region had been fighting other countries’ wars against Asians.

Whitlam wanted to show Australia another way, and his legacy is the change in how we think of ourselves and the world. Engaging with China was important in itself, but there was much more to Whitlam’s vision.

FitzGerald recalls Whitlam did not approach “China in isolation but as part of a broad foreign policy idea, that Australia needed a relationship with Asia based on acceptance of it as our enduring international neighbourhood”.

The regionalism of Whitlam’s approach, often overlooked, is reflected by his itinerary on that very trip: he also visited Japan and the Philippines.

Just as Whitlam did, we need to see our engagement with China as part of our regional engagement. And the reality is that our neighbours, like ourselves, have an abiding interest in averting hegemony by any single power – so this is where our strategic energy must be applied.

The support of European friends is encouraging, but we won’t ever achieve the region we want by simply sitting in the slipstream of G7 policy, to borrow from a recent piece by former Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Peter Varghese on this page.

Our alliance with the United States is our central strategic relationship. We do ourselves and our American partners no favours if we are not maximising our own agency and standing as a reliable partner of choice in the region. Indeed, that should be the principal value we add to the alliance.

However, on the Morrison government’s agenda, our largest neighbour doesn’t seem to be getting the attention that it warrants.

Jakarta has received a steady flow of high-level international visits throughout the pandemic, including three from China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi. In contrast, neither Marise Payne nor Scott Morrison has been to Indonesia since December 2019, despite making other high-profile overseas visits in that time.

In the face of rising COVID-19 risks, economic constraints and development challenges, Indonesia is striving to chart its course to recovery. We should have clearly articulated our ambition to be a partner of choice in that effort, and backed that up with resources.

Outgoing top diplomat Frances Adamson noted in her farewell address that our development program needs to match the tough competition for influence under way in our region. Yet $12 billion of development assistance cuts have left us with insufficient firepower where it counts.

Just as before Whitlam, a lack of vision and ambition is leaving opportunity to wither in front of our eyes.

It’s no coincidence that Anthony Albanese’s first overseas visit as Labor leader was to Jakarta. We share with Indonesia – and ASEAN partners – deep interests in regional stability, sovereignty and prosperity. But showing up matters.

There will always be differences to manage in our leading Asian relationships – not least the structural differences we have with China over rules-based trade, human rights, 5G, the law of the sea, foreign interference and Hong Kong – requiring calm, confident and consistent engagement.

Many countries are seeking a demonstration from Beijing that nearly half a century after international recognition at the UN, it wants to be seen as a responsible international power.

But, ultimately, we should heed Allan Gyngell’s reminder that in all Whitlam’s “thinking about foreign policy he emphasised the need to face up to the realities of the world”.

As we mark this anniversary, we should embrace the true scope of Whitlam’s ambition.

The realities of the world have changed since he first met Zhou Enlai 50 years ago, but the lesson of this anniversary is not about China. It’s about us. It’s about being self-reliant.

It’s about honest assessments of our interests, and bold pursuit of them. It’s about facing the reality that while much of our history is in Europe, our home and our future are in the Indo-Pacific.

And it’s about recognising – as one of Whitlam’s successors, Paul Keating, said – that we need to find our security in Asia, not from Asia.

Only if we see the world as it is do we have any chance of shaping it for the better.

This Opinion Piece was first published in the AFR on Thursday, 1 July 2021.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.