Whitlam’s Engagement Policy Lives On, But Times Have Changed

By Jingdong Yuan, the Director of the China and Asia Security Programme

Anthony Albanese exploited historic symbolism in his visit to China this week and succeeded in restoring some channels of communication. But as Jingdong Yuan writes, risks remain over different visions of the region’s strategic future.

In late October 1973, Gough Whitlam became the first Australian prime minister to visit China, fulfilling a promise he had made to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai two years earlier, when Whitlam as Opposition Leader had led a delegation on an audacious journey to the middle kingdom.

At a banquet Zhou hosted during the official visit, Whitlam laid out the logic for an engagement policy toward China. “[D]ifferent social systems … should not inhibit the flow of ideas,” he said. “Greater consultation and dialogue … may remove the barriers of misunderstanding and lessen the possibility of international conflict.”

This past week, following in the footsteps of the Labor icon, Anthony Albanese made an important trip to China, the first by an Australian prime minister in seven years. In a symbolic enactment, he visited the Temple of Heaven in Beijing that Whitlam graced 50 years ago.

But how times have changed. When Whitlam visited, China was in the final years of the chaotic Cultural Revolution, its economy in shambles, and the country was barely connected to the outside world. The engagement sought to establish channels of communication and dialogue, bring China into the Asia-Pacific region, with which Australia increasingly saw itself associated, and open opportunities for mutually beneficial economic interactions.

Fifty years later, much of what Whitlam envisioned and sought to promote has been achieved, perhaps beyond his wildest imagination at the time. Australia and China have become deeply interdependent economically. China is fully engaged in the global economy and connected to the world. And it has ascended to the status of global power and a peer competitor of the United States.

But if the past few years of strained relations between Australia and China provide any lessons, they point to the importance of engagement, not for its own sake and appearance, but to keep channels of communication open. That was the logic 50 years ago, and it remains valid today. If the emphasis 50 years ago was on achieving better understanding between the two countries, today it is on the importance of dialogue and dispute management, as well as the search for opportunities for cooperation in areas where there are shared interests.

Albanese’s visit can be seen in this broader context. Australia-China relations had reached their lowest point prior to the May 2022 federal elections that brought Labor to power. There had been growing disputes over a range of issues, including the ban on Huawei, more restrictive reviews of Chinese investment in Australia, assertive Chinese activities in the South China Sea and across the Taiwan Strait, and human rights issues in Xinjiang. Beijing reacted angrily and swiftly to Canberra’s call for an independent international investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic by inflicting damaging sanctions on several Australian exports, including barley, wine, coal, and timber, among others, at a cost of over $20 billion to Australian producers.

The heated exchanges between Beijing and Canberra made bilateral engagement impossible. In fact, official dialogue channels were suspended. Labor, in Opposition at the time, shared concerns over growing Chinese political interference and the need to screen and ban Chinese investment into sectors vital to Australian national security. But significantly it was critical of the Coalition’s failed China policy that often involved megaphone diplomacy and at times unnecessary provocative statements on issues such as war in the Taiwan Strait.

Labor’s election victory allows the Albanese government to demonstrate how quiet diplomacy and persistent engagement can go a long way toward lowering tensions and gradually restore official interactions and dialogues. Ministerial meetings have since taken place, including Foreign Minister’s Penny Wong’s visit to China in late December 2022 to mark the occasion of the 50th anniversary of bilateral diplomatic relations. Albanese’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at last year’s G20 meeting in Bali, Indonesia, finally put a floor under bilateral relations. Subsequently, the lifting of some punitive measures on Australian exports and the release of Australian journalist Cheng Lei took place just before Albanese’s important visit.

The visit has been seen as a significant, if not a breakthrough diplomatic event. Both sides agree that they are moving beyond the past and looking to the future, where opportunities for cooperation exist and can be explored. Beijing is keen, at least rhetorically, to present the visit as a success, primarily to indicate its orientation away from the ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’ of the past few years toward a renewed, if still tactical, diplomatic charm offensive. Ahead of Xi’s important meeting with President Biden, a warm welcome to the leader of Australia, a critical US ally in the region, presents a useful optic for China.

Engagement is back, albeit with full recognition of the need to adjust to the changed circumstances and times. The two sides have indicated their intention to resume the annual leaders’ meeting, and the strategic, economic and diplomatic dialogues at ministerial levels. Adding the semi-official high-level bilateral dialogue, these channels of communication will play an important role in the development of Australia-China relations. The real test, though, is whether these channels can and will remain open during times of crisis when they are most needed. This is something that the two sides need to consider seriously and for the good of both countries.

Economic ties have always been the bright spot, if not the anchor, for bilateral relations. Despite the travails of the past few years, bilateral trade has remained strong and grown exponentially, reaching nearly $300 billion last year. Amid the talk of de-risking and having experienced Chinese economic coercion, it is only natural to hear from Australia’s business community the need to diversify, that is develop a ‘China plus’ strategy.

There also are encouraging signs that bilateral economic ties can expand to new areas such as renewable energy, green technologies, where and two countries can collaborate, leveraging their respective and complementary strengths in working together toward meeting the climate change challenge.

While the visit has been billed largely as a success, some of the divisive issues have been left untouched, ‘to live for another day’ so to speak. These include the fundamental differences between China and Australia regarding the region’s geostrategic future and the competitive visions they hold and promote separately. The Quad, AUKUS, the US-Australian military alliance, and China’s growing influence in the South Pacific, will test the good will and resilience of the bilateral relationship in the wake of the Albanese visit.

Jingdong Yuan, PhD, is the Director of the China and Asia Security Programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and a member of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.