Written by Kate Ritchie
“It’s not a question of choosing China or choosing America. It’s a question of choosing a sense of independence which is important for the preservation of our own sovereignty and the importance of the preservation of basic Australian pride.”
It was the 40th anniversary of Diplomatic Relations being established with China (July 2012) that I had a close encounter with Malcolm Fraser. And today it is only 5 months since I wrote about Gough Whitlam and one of his enduring legacies – the recognition of China and how huge that has been for all of us in our relationship with China today. Gough was the pioneer in forging what would become our most important relationship in 1972; Malcolm, particularly in his later years as a statesman, was our moral compass, the one who kept reminding us of the importance of the China relationship and the danger of putting all our eggs into the United States’ basket.
The US has always been reluctant to the China table, not establishing formal relations until 1979 and running what Fraser tagged a “two-track policy” – talking up the importance of understanding and exchange while increasing military forces in the western Pacific and drawing Australia into its web. It is fitting indeed that just before Malcolm Fraser’s passing, Australia finally heeded some of his wisdom, in principle agreeing to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, against the express wishes of America. Australia has finally put its mouth where its money is.
Former PM Fraser was the keynote speaker at the Australia China Friendship Society’s celebration of the Australia-China 40th milestone in July 2012. I was in the audience. Fraser reminded us that as Prime Minister, he acknowledged the relationship with China by visiting Beijing (and Japan) on his first overseas visit. Like Whitlam, he was prescient in seeing the positives in China and in his post-politics life always spoke up in support of the relationship and warned Australia against being a US puppet as it pursued its expansionist policy.
“We cannot expect our trade relationship to be unaffected if on every occasion we follow America in strategic matters.”
Fraser reminded us that China had come to the rescue of the region during the Asian meltdown in 1997 and been a significant factor in helping Australia to avoid the GFC: “China has been a force for good in our part of the world.” He pointed out that the US indeed respects people with a point of view who argue their position well and if Australia stood up to them with an independence of mind better diplomacy and relationships would result and wars and arms races could be averted.
An independence of mind keeps us relevant and Australia needs to be mindful of how other countries see us, Fraser, speaking at the Gough Whitlam Oration in 2012 said, “We need a better understanding that China’s policies will be formed, in part as a consequence of the attitudes and policies of the United States and of countries with which she deals … An understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of our own democracy would strengthen our own diplomacy throughout East and South-East Asia and make us a more effective partner.”
Taking a page out of former Prime Minister Fraser’s book – indeed delivering the Gough Whitlam Oration says a lot about relationships and how change is positive – can Australia follow his advice and exhibit this independence of mind and take its place as an influencer in our relationships in Asia, or will we become irrelevant?
The final words belong to Malcolm Fraser: “We want consultation. We want mutual understanding. We want to resolve difficulties through diplomacy and dialogue. We want to understand each other better.”