In July, 1971, Gough Whitlam, as Leader of the Federal Opposition, embarked on an historic trip to the People’s Republic of China.
Accompanying him was a delegation of Labor parliamentarians, political advisers, China experts – including Dr Stephen FitzGerald, now Distinguished Fellow at the Whitlam Institute, within Western Sydney University – and journalists.
The trip was significant for many reasons: Gough Whitlam was one of the first Western leaders, in opposition at the time,to make high-level political contact with the most populous communist power in the world during the Cold War. And the visit demonstrated Whitlam’s reimagining of Australian foreign policy and his intent to reposition Australia’s engagement with the world.
Reflecting on the visit, Dr FitzGerald, said, “Gough Whitlam had a breadth of vision on international geopolitics unmatched by any Australian leader. He also understood it was critical to any new direction in foreign policy to have widespread public understanding and support”.
“In one fell swoop, his 1971 visit to China not only paved the way for diplomatic relations and a resumption of important trade, it changed how Australians understood China in our foreign policy and opened the way to public support for engagement with Asia on a new basis of equality and mutual respect.”
Director of the Whitlam Institute, Leanne Smith, highlighted the importance of commemorating the foundations of the 1971 visit and the relevance it still holds for Australia today.
“Whitlam’s historic meeting with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in the Great Hall of the People paved the way for a strategic, respectful, informed and independent approach to Australian diplomacy and established a new place for us in the World. Fifty years on, much can be drawn from this approach in how we tackle the foreign policy challenges of today.”
The following year in 1972, and within three weeks of taking office, the Whitlam Government negotiated an agreement with the People’s Republic of China to establish diplomatic relations – with Dr Stephen FitzGerald becoming Australia’s first ambassador to the region. Connecting with China officially was a critical step in supporting the maturation of the relationship between the two nations.