Australian Embassy

Principles behind Whitlam’s China vision still drive us

The following op-ed piece by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was published in The Australian on 20 December 2022.


Wednesday marks an important moment in the history of modern Australia. Fifty years ago on Wednesday, the Whitlam government established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. It was a bold decision and it was the right decision.

Gough Whitlam’s act of vision and ambition recognised China’s global significance and it also spoke for a greater sense of maturity and independence in Australia’s foreign policy.

In 1972, Australia and China were two very different countries with different cultures and histories. While acknowledging those differences, both Australia and China also recognised the shared opportunities that could flow from engaging with each other and from working together to support each other’s development.

We agreed on principles to guide our relationship, based on equality, mutual respect and mutual benefit, and a commitment to a peaceful and prosperous region.

In the 50 years since 1972 Australia has changed in countless ways. Trade and technology have transformed our economy. We are more modern and more confident, more equal and more diverse. Where once we spoke of the “tyranny of distance”, we now embrace the opportunities in our region, home to the fastest-growing economies in the world.

We see for ourselves a key role as a neighbour, partner and leader in the Indo-Pacific, working to support peace, stability and prosperity.

China, too, has undergone a half-century of transformation, to become one of the world’s largest economies and Australia’s largest trading partner.

Through all this, the relationship between Australia and China has also grown and changed, but the strong foundation of cultural and community links has kept it resilient in the face of challenges.

Under the stewardship of both sides of government, our strong people-to-people, academic and business links have delivered benefits to both our countries.

Australia is a richer and more vibrant place thanks to the hard work and aspiration of our Chinese-Australian communities; those who arrived in recent decades and those who helped build our nation from its beginnings.

We have many shared interests, but also differences to manage. Our differences don’t define us but they do underline the importance of clear and open communication.

We are always going to be better off when we engage in dialogue. When we talk to each other calmly, directly and in a spirit of respect. That was the basis for establishing our diplomatic relations in 1972. It is also the basis of our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

On November 15, I was pleased to meet China’s President Xi Jinping for the first time as Prime Minister. We spoke about our highly complementary economies. Australia’s trade with China is worth more than our trade with our next three largest trading partners combined. Just as it is clearly in Australia’s best economic interests to be able to export our high-quality barley, wine, meat, seafood, resources and more to China, it is also clearly in China’s best interests to receive these goods.

We spoke about climate change and the need to work together to tackle this global challenge.

And we agreed that more dialogue would be a positive thing.

We spoke honestly and frankly about our differences, and I made clear Australia would always be guided by our interests and values.

Australia seeks a stable relationship with China between two equal partners; we will co-operate where we can, disagree where we must and always act in the national interest. We will continue to support the rules-based order and regional stability.

As Penny Wong has said, we can grow our bilateral relationship alongside upholding our national interests if both countries navigate our differences wisely.

The Foreign Minister’s visit to China on Tuesday to commemorate the 50-year anniversary is part of the effort to continue to move us down that path.

In recognising China 50 years ago, Whitlam envisioned a world of greater opportunity and prosperity for Australia. It was an act of national maturity based on a belief in the value of dialogue and the importance of engagement. Those principles guide us still as we seek to stabilise the relationship and build a better future.