Australia refused to endorse China’s claim to Taiwan in 1972 because it foresaw a time like this
7 Sep 2022|

Journalists and policy analysts should spend more time reading history. If they did, they would be better placed to challenge the diplomats and politicians who casually requisition the past in order to lay claim to the present.

We might also find our way towards policy prescriptions with real meat, as opposed to the all-too-common superficialities that substitute true engagement with historical context for little more than a doff and a wink at times gone by. Wisdom is in the files.

Certainly, when it comes to Australia’s relationship with China today, Cold War history seems more relevant than ever. That history is being used to insist on policy positions that are (allegedly) obligatory or self-evidently in our self-interest. Such claims cannot be properly scrutinised without close examination of the primary sources. And, funnily enough, when we do so, we find conspicuous and useful parallels with the broader strategic quandary in which Australia finds itself during the 2020s.

In his recent address to the National Press Club, China’s ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, drew some familiar lines in the sand about his government’s position on the status of Taiwan: the island was, he said, ‘a province of China’ and Australia should ‘take the one-China principle seriously’ if it hoped to have a half-decent relationship with its northern giant. Quoting the joint communiqué of December 1972 that had established diplomatic relations between Australia and China, he insisted that Australia had formally acceded to Beijing’s position on Taiwan—and that Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s government simply had to do the honourable (and wise) thing, and fall into step with successive Australian governments that had stood by the original agreement. No one at the Press Club questioned the ambassador about his interpretation.

But did Australia, in fact, endorse the claim that Taiwan is an integral part of Chinese territory when it shook hands with China 50 years ago?

As usual, some of Beijing’s Australian groupies rushed to play the game of stacks-on that happens every time China lectures its southern minnow on its dangerous temerity. Former diplomat Gregory Clark has written that China’s ‘taking over Taiwan [is] a right granted by every nation recognising Beijing, including the US and Australia’. Others have asserted that the 1972 agreement merely acknowledged China’s stance on Taiwan, but did not agree to it, and have appealed to the wording of the communiqué, but gone no further. (The pertinent sentence reads: ‘The Australian Government recognises the Government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China [and] acknowledges the position of the Chinese Government that Taiwan is a province of the People’s Republic of China..)

Formerly classified Australian documents—reproduced in an official documents volume of 2002 commemorating the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations—show clearly that Australia refused to sign a document endorsing China’s claim to Taiwan, and that it did so quite deliberately. Indeed, the sentence about Taiwan was the subject of considerable haggling and disagreement between the two sides during what was an otherwise amiable negotiating process.

The documents volume is available online, as it has been for many years (without the useful editorial commentary that appears only in the hardcopy), yet few who talk at length about the bilateral relationship appear to have read it.

The emergence of differences over Taiwan in late 1972 is all the more striking in view of the public statements made by Gough Whitlam, who was first elected prime minister in November of that year and was in a rush to establish relations with Beijing as part of a helter-skelter program of policy change. In July 1972, for example, he had said: ‘There is only one China. Peking is the capital of one China. Taiwan is a province of one China.’

But when it came to a formal agreement, he proved more cautious and cagey. The instructions given to the Australian diplomat charged with negotiating the joint communiqué were that he should seek Chinese agreement to a formula in which Australia ‘takes note’ of China’s position that Taiwan was ‘an inalienable part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China’. The Department of Foreign Affairs had explained to Whitlam that the formula was one of ‘several … which various countries have used, all of them falling short of endorsing Peking’s claim to Taiwan’, and was intended to demonstrate that Australia ‘neither challenges nor endorses’ the PRC’s position.

The Chinese immediately responded with their own proposed text—Australia ‘recognises that Taiwan is a province of China’—which Foreign Affairs had forecast as an ‘extreme position’ that the Chinese were likely to advance in an attempt to take advantage of Whitlam’s desire to establish diplomatic relations forthwith. The department advised him to reject such a ploy because the Chinese would ‘be given the impression that we can be dragooned into accepting Chinese positions’. Other important domestic and foreign policy considerations were also said to be at play—among them, a potential view among Southeast Asian neighbours that Australia was content to be pushed around by China. And then there was United States, which, though seeking rapprochement with China, had made clear to its allies that it viewed approval of the PRC’s claim over Taiwan to be a concession too far.

The Australian negotiator therefore refused categorically to accept the Beijing’s formula, telling his Chinese counterpart, ‘Australia should not be asked … to accept explicitly the Chinese position … Some middle ground had to be found.’ There was, he remarked, ‘no further compromise to propose’ on the question of an outright endorsement—a statement that proved ‘sufficient to draw from the Chinese Ambassador a further proposal’ on Taiwan, in a form of words that eventually found its way into the final communiqué.

Even so, the Australians tried hard to push the Chinese back to the earlier formula (‘takes note’), arguing, with Whitlam’s approval, that Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai had agreed to such wording when Whitlam had discussed the matter with him as leader of the opposition during a visit to China in July 1971.

This time, it was the Chinese who dug in their heels. The Chinese envoy agreed that such a formula had been discussed, but denied that Zhou had approved it—and later insisted that there could be no compromise on Australia’s ‘acknowledging’ the position of China in relation to Taiwan. When asked why, he retorted that there were ‘many such reasons but he had no authority to reveal them’.

The reasons seem to have been precisely those that have animated Ambassador Xiao. The Chinese hoped to hold on to a modicum of ambiguity in order to be able to claim that Australia had recognised Taiwan to be part of China. According to Foreign Affairs, ‘the Chinese characters used for “acknowledging” are the same as those used elsewhere in the communique for “recognising”’. In other words, the interchangeability of the two words conferred on the Taiwan sentence a whiff of Australian endorsement, given that the communiqué also referred to Australia’s recognition of the PRC government as the sole legal government China.

But the Australians were quick to explain to other governments how they viewed the agreement. Whitlam signed off on a message that was intended to show ‘that we stood up to China on the Taiwan issue and achieved a satisfactory result’. Nine governments—most of them in Asia—were told that the ‘principal point at issue’ during negotiations was the status of Taiwan, and Australia had ‘argued hard’ for the ‘takes note’ formula, but was satisfied with the final result because ‘“Acknowledges” is very similar to “takes note”’.

The intensity of Australia’s wrangling over one sentence of the communiqué raises the question of why such strenuous efforts were made over a minor element of a much larger relationship. Aside from a general desire to resist Chinese bullying, what were the strategic concerns that informed Australia’s determination to neither challenge nor endorse Beijing over Taiwan?

In their first and most wide-ranging submission to Whitlam on the matter, Foreign Affairs officials tried to cast their minds forward to a day when great-power conflict over Taiwan might place Australia in an unenviable position:

[C]omplete Governmental endorsement of Peking’s claim in a formal communique … would make it very difficult for Australia to protest against any future move by Peking—unlikely as this seems at present—to recover by force of arms an island we had recognised as being part of China’s sovereign territory. Equally, such endorsement would make it very difficult to find a ground for not condemning any counteraction that might be taken by the United States under its Security Treaty with [Taiwan].

Xiao and his government have made plain that the threat of force has moved well beyond ‘unlikely’, giving added weight to another concern of Foreign Affairs—namely, that Taiwan’s position was not so different from Australia’s: ‘Unqualified endorsement of Peking’s claim could also give substance to charges that Australia had “abandoned” Taiwan, a country with a population a little larger than our own.’

The question implied in 1972 seems yet more germane in 2022: if a great power can ride roughshod over others without our raising so much as a whimper, why should we expect anybody to come to our aid in a time of trouble?