International policy is deeply serious work—vital to nation and people, and deadly in effects. Yet oft times it lurches from furore to fiasco, via farce to straight-out funny.
The utter pragmatism of Malcolm Fraser’s embrace of China meets the measure of serious work of lasting import, relevant to today’s arguments. First, though, the fun in Fraser’s initial visit to China as PM in June, 1976—a tour that entered Press Gallery lore on all sorts of ‘f’ measures from fantastic to farce.
Fraser’s party, plus journos, attended a sumptuous Chinese dinner to be entertained by rousing renditions of traditional Chinese songs. The PM decided there should be an Oz response and commanded the gallery hacks to sing. Fraser expected Waltzing Matilda. Instead, Ken Begg, of the ABC, and Peter Bowers, of the Sydney Morning Herald, led the hack howlers in a rendition of an advertising ditty for Aeroplane jelly.
The Adelaide Advertiser’s Brett Bayly recalls a gusto performance (although the hacks couldn’t remember all the words) to Fraser’s growing displeasure:
‘When the Chinese asked for an interpretation, Fraser looked at us with a very threatening look. But up jumped Begg to explain to our Communist hosts that the song was about the evil capitalists who were taking over the economy in Australia. Fraser fumed, Tamie giggled, the Chinese applauded and we all felt just great.’
Alan Ramsey wrote that the howler’s performance horrified press secretary, David Barnett, who accused the hacks of embarrassing Fraser and ‘betraying the national interest’.
The trip had already served up multiple helpings of furore, farce and fiasco. A junior Australian diplomat mixed up copies of a press release with copies of the full transcript of the first day of talks between Fraser and China’s Premier. The mix-up meant Fraser’s party got the envelopes with the press release and the hacks got the envelopes with the confidential transcript. Crash, bang, boom, with lots of details about Fraser’s indiscreet remarks about India, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Premier Hua Kuo-feng, in turn, was recorded offering an enthusiastic view of the new British Tory leader, Margaret Thatcher, which was an interesting signal of where Maoist China was heading.
The geopolitical furore was Fraser’s floating of the idea of a four-power Pacific agreement reaching towards alliance, bringing together China, the US, Australia and Japan to face-off against the Soviet Union. Travelling with Fraser, the Melbourne Herald’s Peter Costigan broke the scoop this way on 26 June: ‘The Prime Minister, Mr Fraser, wants China to join with Australia, the US and Japan in a four-power Pacific agreement. He has raised the subject in talks with the Chinese Premier, Hua Kuo-fang.’
There’s some debate about whether Fraser raised the idea so explicitly with Hua, while sketching it in more lurid detail during a drink with Peter Costigan. Senior Fraser aides muttered darkly that fiasco and furore were fermented by unreconstructed Whitlamites in Foreign Affairs, seeking to damage the new PM.
Beijing didn’t mind. The Chinese quickly decided that here was another conservative leader from the West who had come to do business. (For a fine discussion of Fraser and China in 1976, see Professor John Fitzgerald’s masterful account.)
Whitlam got the kudos for diplomatic recognition of China. Yet the embrace of China was one area where Fraser matched Whitlam exactly in policy intent and personal commitment. Fraser’s achievement was to establish that a conservative government in Canberra could be as fervent for the China relationship as Labor.
Deeply different national histories, interests and ideologies didn’t prevent a firm friendship that could surprise on the upside. There was nary a hint that Fraser had been a minister in previous Liberal governments that refused to recognise the devil regime in Beijing (Menzies) and gave formal recognition to Taiwan (Holt).
Fraser’s persona as an ideological warrior could play to his advantage; his visceral distrust of the Soviet Union was shared by China’s leadership. Forget ideology to do a deal to mutual benefit. A China that had fought border wars with Russia was well able to find some geopolitical common ground with Malcolm Fraser. Beijing was not going to sign up to Fraser’s vision of a grand anti-Soviet coalition, but it liked where he was coming from.
Fraser’s label for his approach was ‘enlightened realism’. It was the mantra of a Cold War warrior who’d cooled and become more selective about his enemies. The warrior would be as zealous as ever about resisting the Soviet Union, but anti-communism would not get in the way of new possibilities with China.
The pragmatism of ‘enlightened realism’ created plenty of room for a new China passion. That was signalled in Fraser’s first major statement on foreign policy as Prime Minister, delivered to the House of Representatives on 1 June 1976, just before his first overseas trip as leader, visiting Japan and China.
The ‘enlightened’ bit of the speech was its tribute to deeply held Australian values of democracy, freedom and respect for the individual. Then, the ‘realism’ came crashing in. The ideology of regimes couldn’t be the guiding principle of Australian policy. Interests, not ideology, would drive cooperation:
‘Whatever the basis of a regime, whatever the organisation of its domestic government, the chief determinant of our relations will be that country’s approach to foreign relations, how it meshes with ours, and of necessity the extent of the interests we share. We should strive to deal with other countries, and look to the development of cooperative relations with those countries with who we have some common interests, regardless of ideology. A relationship founded on common interests is ultimately the only relationship that can be depended upon.’
This China script was endlessly reworked in these exact terms by John Howard. Tony Abbott’s indiscreet line that Australia’s China policy is driven by ‘fear and greed’ merely shows he still retains his journalistic ability to simplify and heighten. The hack howlers would applaud. There’s plenty of room for fear and greed as part of the mix in enlightened realism, as Malcolm Fraser well knew. And Fraser also understood the pain caused when private remarks to another leader are made public. Plus ça change….