The fiftieth anniversary of the proclamation of the Peoples Republic of China on 1 October 1949 compounded difficulties for successive Australian governments. Recognising China has two aspects. The first is to judge its importance to us, a slow dawning, during the first half of this century when India and Japan loomed larger for Austral-Britons. The second is the diplomatic representation with one or more of China’s governments.

Throughout the 1950s, our Ministers for External Affairs behaved like Chekhov’s three sisters who keep saying that they are going to the capital, but never leave their country estate. Canberra kept promising itself that it intended to go to Beijing, but never got further than the Taiwan Straits. Mapping our diplomatic by-roads into China throughout the past century will help us to locate our place in the world.

The 1887 visit of two Imperial Chinese Commissioners began government-to-government relations. Those officials upheld the rights of expatriate Chinese by reporting violations to Whitehall which then pressured Australian governments not to make the Unequal Treaties even more iniquitous. The colonies were determined to maintain the privileges of the European in China and sent a naval contingent against the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.

In 1909, the Chinese appointed a Consul-General to Melbourne. Twenty years later, F. T. Sung took up that post. In his 1983 book, British journalist Anthony Grey alleged that, before Sung moved his office to Sydney, he had recruited future Prime Minister Harold Holt as an agent of influence.

Australia had no overseas diplomatic posts until the dispatch of ambassadors to Washington and Tokyo in 1939. In order not to be seen kowtowing to the Japanese aggressors, Canberra in 1941 accredited representatives to the besieged Nationalist capital in Chongqing. Its weather provoked our first ambassador, Sir Frederick Eggleston, to describe the city as ‘like living in a cellar’. Eggleston was a small-l liberal and erstwhile politician who had promoted an Asia-Pacific consciousness in the 1930s. Racked by gout and arthritis, our Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary had to be carried up and down the city’s steps in a sedan chair. This Buddha-built sage appealed to the Chinese gentry as a fellow scholar.

Canberra declined to negotiate an equal Treaty with China during the war for fear of having to make concessions on immigration and tariffs. Indeed, so little did China matter that Australia had no resident ambassador for the twenty-seven months to May 1946. Moreover, relations were kept at legation level, not an Embassy. When Keith Officer took over as ambassador in November 1948, his staff was cut.

Officer supported engagement with the Communists, remaining in the restored capital of Nanking in June 1949 to greet the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) which ignored him. Officer observed that he was living under authorities who did not acknowledge his immunities or privileges because he was accredited to their opponents who had fled. The Reds returned his diplomatic mail to Canberra.

From the Labor backbench, Kim Beazley senior was a lonely advocate for fellow Christian Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, whose regime the Australian press dismissed as corrupt, chauvinist and cruel. Australian diplomats in China had reported early in August 1947 that if ‘the defeat of Communism rests upon the support of the existing fascist regime in China, the cause is already lost’. When the External Affairs Department did focus on China, its officials feared that Chiang Kai-shek would be as expansionist as any Communist regime, but the difference would be the backing from the Soviet Union. The West, therefore, should deal with the New China if only to reduce Mao’s dependence on Moscow.

Mao’s proclamation of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) on 1 October 1949 overcame the problem that there had been no alternative government to the Republic of China (ROC) for other states to recognise.

Labor prime minister Chifley asked his UK counterparts to delay their recognition of Mao’s government until after the Australian elections on 10 December 1949. His External Affairs minister, Dr H. V. Evatt, turned hostile towards the new regime in order to appease both the electorate and the right-wing of the ALP caucus whose votes he sought for his leadership ambitions. Return of the Labor government would not have guaranteed recognition in 1950.  

A colonised mentality infected the handling of diplomatic recognition which Canberra saw as our bestowing a benefit on the Chinese. The new emperors of the Middle Kingdom saw the world differently and put off exchanging ambassadors with the United Kingdom for five years. Also, our subordinate position within the British Empire meant that many Australians could not conceive of the Chinese communists other than as puppets of Moscow.

Although Liberal election posters had portrayed the Red Chinese as an ‘arrow aimed at the heart of Australia’, the Menzies cabinet expected to follow the British offer of recognition on 6 January. The need to sustain a Red Scare in order to justify banning the local Communist Party impeded this inclination. Even more important was Canberra’s determination to keep the US happy in negotiations over the Peace Treaty with Japan.

Delay was reasonable because open civil war persisted for nine months after Mao’s declaration. Chiang-kai Shek did not flee the mainland until 10 December, and two months later his planes bombed Shanghai. Meanwhile, his troops continued to retreat, notably from Hainan and the Chusan islands.

Diplomatic recognition was not just a question of whether or not to recognise Beijing, since recognition could be either de jure or de facto. The latter meant accepting only that the new government had effective control of the territory but fell short of the norms of international conduct required for full recognition. Had Officer’s contacts with the PLA constituted de facto recognition? An interim measure would be to withdraw recognition from the ROC without acknowledging any successor. Liberal External Affairs Minister Percy Spender was still advocating this approach early in 1951 because it signalled that the Chiang forces had no prospect of retaking the mainland. Indeed, Spender suspected that, were Chiang to invade the mainland, many of his troops would defect.

Another complication was what to do with the Nationalists. Because Chiang had got the Allies at the Cairo Conference in 1943 to treat Formosa as part of China, he could hardly form a government-in-exile inside his own country. He therefore had to claim that his rump was the government of all China, and that the Reds were merely bandits.

Even to grant Beijing  de jure recognition would not have removed the difficulties. Was the new government also to inherit China’s permanent seat in the Security Council? On 13 January, the Soviets walked out of that body over its failure to install the Beijing government in place of the ROC. Absence of the Soviet veto allowed Washington to gain UN approval on 27 June 1950 for US landings on Korea.

On that same day, President Truman ended the shooting war inside China by announcing that the US Seventh Fleet would protect Formosa as a base for flights between Japan and the Philippines. The US thereby entered the civil war on the side of the Nationalists, coupling that commitment to the conflict in Korea.

Entry of Chinese volunteers into the Korean war from October 1950 made Beijing appear a rogue state. Nonetheless, Spender remained open-minded as to whether the PLA had moved only in reaction to General McArthur’s lunge towards China, or as part of a strategy of aggression directed from Moscow. Australia resisted the use of Chiang’s forces in Korea as bad public relations to nationalists elsewhere in Asia.

Despite Beijing’s war against Australian troops in Korea, the Liberal government did not abandon all thought of recognising the new regime. Spender withheld overtures while the UN forces were losing in Korea and until after he had concluded a security treaty with the USA. He did not trade Australia’s backing of the ROC for Washington’s agreement to ANZUS. Rather, he made the timing of recognition decisive.

After Spender’s departure in 1951, the new External Affairs Minister R. G. Casey believed that China’s admission to the UN was only a matter of time. The week that Dien Bien Phu fell, he favoured recognition in exchange for Beijing’s stopping support to the Viet Minh. Casey thought that the biggest obstacle was public opinion in the USA and offered to shepherd the white Commonwealth behind the US Administration to sell a change of line. He told Time-Life editors that Beijing ‘would be less dangerous if we all had more or less normal relations with her than if we all continued to spit in her eye at every opportunity’.

Meanwhile, at the UN, Australia co-sponsored the US motion that a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly would be needed to admit the PRC. By contrast, from the 1955 Labor split onwards, Evatt championed recognition, making the two-China policy a fault line in Australia’s domestic politics.

After 1955, Casey gave up on the mainland, perhaps to maintain US support for keeping the Indonesians out of West Irian. Still he seesawed. In March 1958, he opposed the establishment of an embassy on Taiwan for fear of jeopardising future talks with Beijing, but a year later accepted a full ROC ambassador in Canberra.

Refusal to recognise Beijing as the government of China now seems as futile as preferring the earth to be flat. Yet, within minutes of the announcement in 1957 that the Irish delegation to the United Nations would reverse its vote to favour a debate on whether to admit Beijing, New York’s Cardinal Spellman was on the phone threatening to ‘raise the Devil’. Irish diplomat, Conor Cruise O’Brien, mused that US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles saw the vote each October to retain Taipei as ‘the resurrection of Tinker Bell. The Good Government of China, which was therefore the Real Government, lived again through the faith of the General Assembly. Towards those who manifested doubt about this performance he felt as people who are moved by Peter Pan might feel towards a member of the audience who insisted on announcing, at the crucial moment, that he did not believe in fairies’.

Governments in receipt of US aid or investment were suborned to support Taipei. Bill Skase’s realignment of the Papua New Guinea for lucre was typical of how the US kept Taiwan on the UN Security Council until 1971.

The Australian electorate was more concerned than informed. Popular images of rice and sampans were spiced with really true facts from the Readers Digest. Australians feared China for its famines, its immigrants, and because it manipulated a fifth column of militant unions and radical students. In 1955, more than half those polled supported a nuclear attack on China if it invaded its offshore islands. One respondent to an academic survey of attitudes wished that ‘they still threw their babies in the Yangste like they used to, then they wouldn’t be so overcrowded’. Opinion polls in the late 1960s revealed that 30 per cent saw China as the prime threat to Australia, twice as many as for the Soviet Union.

A run of incidents had established this image of Red China as aggressive and expansionist: the occupation of Tibet from 1950; the 1958 shelling of off-shore islands controlled by Taiwan; the misreporting of Indian aggression along the border in 1962; development of atomic weapons from 1964; the backing that Beijing gave to Sukarno’s Indonesia with its huge Communist Party; and then, from 1966, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution which made China appear capable of anything. These perceptions compounded the generalised fear of Asia that the Imperial Japanese forces had reinforced among Australians.

The result was that Menzies could justify his commitment of troops to Vietnam as opposing ‘a thrust by Communist China between the Indian and Pacific Oceans’. Defence Minister Fairhall added that the Chinese were out ‘to dominate the world’.

Fantasyland operated in China as well. After the 1963 split in the Australian Communist Party saw the majority shift from being pro-Beijing to pro-Moscow, the Chinese media treated local pro-China Party Chairman E. F. Hill as ‘the leader of the Australian people’, which caused the Chinese to suppose that Hill was our prime minister.

Far from edging towards a rapprochement with the mainland, Australian governments courted Beijing’s prime enemies, Taiwan and the Soviets. After dinner with the Taiwanese Ambassador in July 1966, new prime minister Harold Holt upgraded our legation on Taipei to a full Embassy in 1966, which suggests that Holt was more likely an agent of the Taiwanese than the Communists.

Ex-diplomat Gregory Clark reported that when External Affairs Minister Paul Hasluck visited Moscow in 1963, he tried ‘to recruit the Russians as allies against the Chinese by warning them of Chinese territorial ambitions to take over Sinkiang. The Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko took it calmly. Then he reminded Hasluck that Singkiang had long been Chinese territory’.

Hasluck’s successor, Gordon Freeth, in 1969 responded to the entry of  the Soviet Navy into the Indian Ocean by remarking that Australians ‘need not panic whenever a Russian appears’. The Soviet Embassy welcomed Freeth’s statement as an offer to form an alliance against Maoist China. Freeth’s comments provoked such virulence among the political Right that he lost his seat in parliament.

While Canberra was setting its face against accommodation, the rest of the world was opening its doors. During the visit of Canadian prime minister Trudeau to Canberra in May 1970, full and frank discussions broke out. In October, Canada recognised Beijing, dumped Taiwan and got big wheat deals while Australia got none. At the same time, Malaysia came out in favour of admitting Beijing by a simple majority, a position which Canberra continued to oppose.

In 1970, Canberra instituted a review of China policy, tracking a reappraisal inside the US State Department. The call for ‘normal bilateral relations’ was sensible but timid. Prime Minister McMahon favoured Beijing’s admission to the UN and he withdrew sponsorship of the motion for a two-thirds majority but he still wanted to seat both Chinas in General Assembly and opposed recognition of Beijing by Canberra.

On 14 July 1971, McMahon was gleeful that Whitlam’s diplomatic gaffes in criticising the US over Vietnam while in Beijing would help the Coalition win the next elections. A day later, Washington announced Nixon’s proposed visit. If fear of China was becoming an electoral liability for the Liberals, McMahon still feared the DLP senators more than the PLA hordes, and shelved recognition.

The shift in Australian public opinion was rapid. Between March and August 1971, support for recognition of Beijing went up from 39 to 56 per cent, although only one in ten favoured the expulsion of Taiwan from the UN.

Early in 1972, Beijing cancelled a ministerial visit from Australia after leadership of the delegation was changed to the trade minister instead of the army minister, who would have carried more political significance. The Chinese were showing that they could say: ‘Well, you have at last recognised us, but who the hell are you?’

Zhou-Enlai decided that McMahon’s refusal to dump Taiwan was a dead end and waited till Whitlam became prime minister. Four days after Labor’s win on 2 December, Whitlam recalled the Ambassador from Taipei and by the 22nd announced that ambassadors would be exchanged with Beijing.

When I asked the Chinese Ambassador at a banquet early in 1976 what difference the election of the Fraser government would have on Australia-China relations, he replied that he did not expect Canberra to revert to recognising Taipei. I took this example of the blindingly obvious as his way of telling me to confine our conversation to his lesson in how to hold chopsticks. In fact, Fraser’s fear of the Soviet Union drew Canberra and Beijing together, as highlighted by the support he gave to the Khmer Rouge after the Vietnamese invasion.

Fifty years after Mao’s declaration on 1 October 1949, we face new versions of the two difficulties that Australians have had in recognising China. Officials still cannot appreciate China’s view of itself without endorsing Beijing’s practices. For example, to understand why the Chinese see their possession of Taiwan as concluding their liberation from Japanese militarism does not require us to endorse the island’s forced integration.

The second hangover concerns diplomatic recognition. The Hayden formula of recognising states and not regimes slid around the embarrassments that arise from endorsing butchers. That slight-of-hand is making for trouble now that Taiwan claims to be a separate state and no longer the real and good government of the mainland.

In Australia’s dealings with China, the flag has followed trade, reversing the proverb about the British Empire. In 1935, Australia sent four Trade Commissions to Asia, including one in Shanghai which closed late in 1948. In the late 1940s, the Labor government feared the loss of Hong Kong as a trading post after its imports from Australia jumped from less than £1m. in 1945-46 to £6m. before slumping back to £1.5m. by 1948-49. Nonetheless, in May 1949, Canberra declined to reinforce Hong Kong for fear of provoking a major war.

After 1949, the US banned the sale of goods that could be re-exported through Hong Kong. Canberra stuck to the US list until 1971, long after the UK and Europeans had cut their catalogue of strategic items.

Trade with the Peoples Republic began in the early 1950s with the Chinese buying wool and selling teas. Sydney broker Marcel Dekyvere had little success until he offered to exchange wool for oil but his lack of import licences frustrated this bartering. Dekyvere formed a commercial alliance with a communist saint, Bruce Milliss. The Dekyveres put their profits into Black-and-White Balls while Milliss handed his share over to the Communist Party, a novel species of Moscow gold. He also extracted a £10 000 fee from the Australian bank that was handling the transaction to expand his marketing of socialism.

The Country Party wanted to reopen a trade commission on the mainland but was blocked by External Affairs as a step towards recognition which would offend Washington. Canberra also refused visas for Chinese commercial representatives to visit Australia. Nonetheless, wheat sales expanded in the early 1960s to make China our largest single customer for grains, and our fourth biggest market for all goods.

In the 1980s, the Hawke government envisioned China as the Japan that Australia would get right. Labor revived the myth of the Chinese solving our balance-of-payment problems by wearing woollen socks and sugaring their tea. Yet Taiwan custom is almost as big and much more stable.

Although Sydney author Nick Jose set his 1994 novel, The Rose Crossing, in the middle of the seventeenth century, its theme is pertinent to Australia’s trade with China for the coming fifty years. Jose imagined an English scientist and a deposed emperor wrecked on an island on the Indian ocean who communicate through the rudiments of Latin. Each side expects huge benefits before misunderstandings leave both defeated.