Forty years ago this month, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam made the controversial decision to recognise China's communist government. Has the relationship prospered?
A SIMPLE picture sometimes hides more than it reveals. The photograph captured Gough Whitlam standing alongside Chairman Mao Zedong, the first and only meeting of an Australian prime minister with the famed leader of the People's Republic of China, a country that, formally at least, Canberra had refused to acknowledge actually existed up until only a few months before.
Up to that point many of the domestic exchanges about Whitlam's 1971 trip to China had been delivered in anger, including Whitlam being dubbed ''a disgrace to Australia'' by Liberal government minister Malcolm Fraser.
Prime minister Billy McMahon was also critical, saying: ''It is time to expose the shams and absurdities of his excursion into instant coffee diplomacy. We must not become pawns of the giant communist power in our region''.
Forty years on this month, as Australia marks Whitlam's establishment of diplomatic relations with mainland China in December 1972, there is still plenty of talking about this critical relationship. Last month, Julia Gillard clasped hands with another Chinese leader, Premier Wen Jiabao, on the sidelines of a regional summit in Cambodia. She presented Wen with a copy of the photograph of Whitlam and Mao (signed by Whitlam), as a memento to mark the anniversary.
It is hard to fathom that back in 1972 when Whitlam took the decision to extend official recognition, Australia had a trade surplus with China of just $12.9 million. Today it is $33 billion in Australia's favour.
Chinese immigrants also buttress the Australian population as students and tourists flock to Australia from China in their tens of thousands.
''Australia is moving in a new direction,'' Whitlam had pledged back in 1973 during his trip to the Chinese capital and which followed his landmark 1971 visit as opposition leader - one that had driven his conservative rivals to exclaim Australia was breaking with the American alliance in the Cold War against communism.
''Our concern is no longer exclusively with nations in far removed areas of the globe,'' Whitlam declared. ''In Peking today we give expression to our new international outlook. With no nation is our new aspiration symbolised more than it is with China, a power not only in our region but in the world.''
Aspiration has been a recurring theme of Australia's ties with China, often boiling down to a challenge to manage traditional alliance links to Washington with the growing might and influence of what is now called Beijing.
The result has often left an impression that every new government in Canberra discovers what its predecessors have seemingly ignored - that China matters. By way of an example, Gillard launched work on Labor's recent Australia in the Asian Century white paper by declaring as a nation, ''we have not been here before''.
Indeed, Australia has been forced to reboot its China relationship several times. The stunning growth in trade ties between the two countries can easily mask often intense political difficulties; think Bob Hawke shedding tears over the brutal 1989 crackdown on democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square; John Howard being harangued by China over Taiwan, or the recent angst over the trial and imprisonment of Australian businessman Stern Hu.
Kevin Rudd is still rebuilding after leaked US diplomatic cables revealed he warned the Americans to be ready to use force against China ''if everything goes wrong''.
The brittle history of Australia's relations with China has prompted a recent and stark warning by Stephen FitzGerald, the man Whitlam appointed Australia's as first ambassador to China: ''Sometimes over the last 40 years I have thought we were getting it right with China. This is not one of those times.''
But the occasionally amnesic nature of Australian foreign policy was not the message Gillard hoped to reinforce with her gift to Wen. The photo was meant as a symbol of longevity, of four decades of evolving relations from what the inscription described as that ''historic visit''.
''At the time he first travelled to China he was the subject of partisan criticism,'' Gillard told reporters after meeting Wen. ''I think the terminology was, 'played like a trout' by the then Liberal prime minister of our nation, and it just goes to show, doesn't it, that with the perspective of history, things that were controversial at the time become so much part of the norm.''
According to American officials at the time, Billy McMahon had been ''almost psychotic'' about the Whitlam visit and the vindication that followed the surprise decision by US president Richard Nixon to go to China.
The official records, unearthed by historian James Curran in a recent collection of essays Australia and China at 40, reinforce just how controversial Whitlam's decision to embrace China had been.
Australia had been in lock-step with Washington since the revolution in China, refusing to recognise the communist regime. But American policy was evolving, a shift the conservative government in Canberra had failed to recognise, stuck with ''inert [leadership] and petrified in outdated politics'', according to US officials.
Whitlam was determined to break the taboo. Curran tells of a dinner Whitlam later attended in Tokyo where he boasted of his role, telling the guests he'd been ''glad to be a pathfinder for Nixon: it makes things easier for him at home and for people all over the world''.
But the conservative angst in Australia soon dissipated. Malcolm Fraser, who had led the charge against Whitlam's initial visit to China, labelling it a disgrace, made north Asia his first destination as prime minister before going to either London and Washington.
As Curran explains, asked why, Fraser's response was simple yet striking: ''The world changes.''
Responding to momentous change of the day is a truism politicians of all stripes like to invoke to justify their decisions. But if the mythology about the Chinese preferring to take the long view of history is to be believed, much can be drawn from a telling comment made in 1985 when a high-ranking communist party official, Hu Qili, visited Australia. ''Both China and Australia have vast territories and rich natural resources,'' Hu said, ''but each has different strong points. You have advantages in iron ore, bauxite and other minerals, as well as in livestock products. You also possess better technology, more funds and more professional talents.
''We, on our part, have advantages in other natural resources such as petroleum, and have a larger labour force and market. Our two countries can supplement each other by giving full play to our advantages to make up for our deficiencies.''
This simple assessment of the complementary relations between the countries is included in a comprehensive new book by Yi Wang, Australia-China Relations post 1949. Yi, a former Chinese public servant, charts the ups and downs in the relationship across governments: the leaders besotted and the occasional deep freezes.
Hawke was known by the Chinese name Huo Ke Long before the excitement surrounding Mandarin-speaking Rudd as Lu Kewen. Listening devices planted by ASIO were found in China's embassy in Canberra, and China was in turn accused of having a thousand spies in Australia after the diplomat, Chen Yonglin, defected.
''There have also been differences in style and emphasis between administrations on how to approach China, but these have not prevented the development of a high level of bipartisanship over the importance of the relationship,'' Yi notes.
The transformed attitude on the conservative side of politics towards China was no better emphasised than in 2003 when John Howard hosted on consecutive days a visit to Parliament by the US president George W. Bush and the Chinese leader Hu Jintao.
''We are different societies, we have different cultures, we have different traditions and we have different histories, and no purpose is served in pretending otherwise,'' Howard told president Hu.
''But that has never blinded, might I say, successive Australian governments of both political persuasions from an endeavour to draw from the relationship those things that can be of great and enduring mutual benefit to our society.''
But bipartisanship is admirable only when it has settled on the correct policy, otherwise it can be stifling. If Australia had been a pathfinder back in the Whitlam days, FitzGerald worries it has become a mere follower now.
''Australia's China policy today is again becoming a function of US China policy,'' he wrote in a speech intended for an audience in Canberra last month, but could not in the end deliver due to illness.
''Australia has made itself a military accessory to Washington's re-invigorated alliance system in the Pacific, which is about buttressing Washington's position vis-a-vis Beijing.''
The decision last year to host 2500 American marines near Darwin, along with talk of an expanded US navy presence in Perth and unmanned drones on Cocos Island, has prompted a resurgent debate about Australia's aspirations with China.
Political heavyweights from Fraser, Hawke and Paul Keating have each warned in their own ways of fuelling a rivalry between the US and China. Malcolm Turnbull has also chimed in.
''Americans, imbued with a deep sense of their own exceptionalism, have assumed that they will always be the strongest, richest and cleverest nation on earth. Their birthright has been to provide the benchmark in living standards, infrastructure, education and technology,'' Turnbull told a London audience last year.
''It makes no sense for America, or its allies, to base long-term strategic policy on the contentious proposition that we are on an inevitable collision course with a militarily aggressive China.''
The government has sought to dismiss concerns over the American military deployments by painting the idea of a choice between China and the US as ''infantile''. Australia can have an ally in Washington and a friend in Beijing is a refrain Gillard is fond of repeating.
But FitzGerald sees it as an attempt to trivialise the issues.
''It pays no respect to people who are trying to have a serious debate about our foreign policy,'' he says.
''We're in hazardous territory when government itself doesn't lead with ideas, has no narrative of its own and outsources the thinking to someone else … Australians have become comfortable with the idea that the relationship with China is essentially commercial, that China policy is skewed to focus overwhelmingly on the economic and what we can get out of it.''
In FitzGerald's view, after 40 years, Australia has come full circle back to an attempt to contain China.
There is no fortune cookie to tell the future of Australia-China ties. While politicians emphasise changes and strategists look for signs of continuity, chance plays a part too. Back during Whitlam's official visit, Yi tells of another barely noted photograph to commemorate the trip. A quiet and rather inconspicuous ''little man'' helped escort the Australian delegation and was captured in one shot standing at the edge of the crowd.
Deng Xiaoping was his name, later the paramount leader who would open China to the world.
Daniel Flitton is a senior Fairfax correspondent.