The Age

by Tom Switzer

Whitlam and Nixon's rapprochement with ''Red China'' proved to be brave, inspired diplomacy.

China is a sleeping giant, Napoleon once warned. ''Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will move the world.'' The sleeping giant awoke to the modern world 40 years ago this week, when two leading political figures from the West visited Beijing for high-level meetings.

From July 4-6, 1971, Gough Whitlam led an opposition Labor Party delegation to meet the communist leadership; and from July 9-11, Richard Nixon's national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, led a secret US mission to complete plans for the first presidential visit the following year. Both events set the scene for Canberra and Washington to normalise relations with the People's Republic.

To the US, the 1949 Communist Revolution meant the free world had ''lost'' an ally and acquired a dangerous enemy that belonged to the monolithic and centralised Soviet bloc. Australia still sold a substantial amount of wheat to the mainland, but, unlike Britain, had backed the US in isolating ''Red China''. For years, the real China was instead recognised as the island of Formosa, now known as Taiwan, where Chiang Kai-shek's defeated Nationalists had fled after the civil war. That all started to change in July 1971.

Since Australia's Liberal and Country parties won power in 1949, Labor had been in opposition, wedged between left-wing advocates of accommodating the Soviet bloc and the anti-communist Democratic Labor Party, whose preferences helped prop up coalition governments.

The Cold War political climate reached its zenith in 1966 when Harold Holt, backed unashamedly by Democratic US president Lyndon Johnson, won one of the biggest landslide victories over the issue of Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War. In this environment, for any Labor leader to challenge the prevailing wisdom by supping with the devil in Beijing was heady stuff - the sort of thing that Sir Humphrey, the character from the BBC series Yes Minister, would have described as ''very brave, minister''.

Whitlam's visit culminated in a two-hour midnight meeting with Chinese premier Zhou Enlai on July 5. On the previous day, Liberal prime minister Bill McMahon said the establishment of Australian diplomatic relations with Beijing was ''a long way off''. Zhou was more interested in Whitlam's position on Australia's security alliance with the US as well as the Vietnam War. Whitlam told his host that ANZUS was ''entirely defensive'' and that Labor supported the withdrawal of Australian and US troops from Vietnam. Zhou naturally agreed and said he would welcome back Whitlam as prime minister.

The domestic response, initially, was hostile. McMahon railed against this ''instant-coffee diplomacy'', warning that ''in no time at all Mr Zhou had Mr Whitlam on a hook and he played him as a fisherman plays a trout''. One Liberal MP, Malcolm Fraser, said of Whitlam: ''This man is a disgrace to Australia.''

But the Labor leader had the last laugh. On July 15, Nixon revealed not only Kissinger's meetings with the same premier Zhou whom Whitlam had met days earlier, but that he, Nixon, would also visit China in early 1972. Suddenly, the political ball game had changed. Far from being demonised, Whitlam was lauded for his diplomatic decisiveness. It was Whitlam who had played McMahon as a fisherman plays a trout. The episode presaged Australia's recognition of the People's Republic of China in December 1972 when Labor took office, ending 23 years in the political wilderness.

Meanwhile, here was Nixon, whose rise to the presidency had been defined by his relentless opposition to communism, accommodating the very outlaw nation he had helped to ostracise since 1949. During the early 1950s, the young senator endorsed Joe McCarthy's charge that treasonous US diplomats had ''lost China''. In his television presidential debate with John Kennedy in 1960, he declared: ''Now, what do the Chinese Communists want? They don't just want [the offshore islands] Quemoy and Matsu. They don't just want Formosa. They want the world.''

And as a private citizen in the mid-1960s, he defended the US escalation of the Vietnam War on the basis that it represented a ''confrontation, not fundamentally between Vietnam and the Vietcong or between the United States and the Vietcong, but between the United States and communist China''.

The Sino-Soviet split, combined with the collapse of the Cold War consensus at home, provided ''Tricky Dick'' with an opportunuty to do a volte face. But just as Whitlam's gambit led to a backlash from the right, so too did Nixon's China initiative. William F. Buckley, the widely acclaimed patron saint of American conservatives, lamented: ''We have lost - irretrievably - any remaining sense of moral mission in the world.'' Even Oscar-winning actor John Wayne deplored Nixon's China overture as ''a real shocker''.

Today, there is no denying the merits of the rapprochement. It was probably the most significant foreign policy initiative since the launch of the Marshall Plan and the creation of NATO in the 1940s.

It set the stage for the development of two important bilateral relationships that continue to shape regional economics. It also helped the Chinese move away from the nightmare of the Cultural Revolution.

By opening the door for China, Whitlam and Nixon helped open the eyes of a billion Chinese to the world.

Tom Switzer is a research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and editor of Spectator Australia.