Sinclaire Prowse, a postgraduate student at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, writes:
Julia Gillard’s opinion piece in the Australian yesterday, 'We'll follow Whitlam’s way on China', is a further example of the late arrival of the current Australian government to the important issues surrounding Australian engagement with China.
More than 40 years ago, Whitlam exhibited great independence of thinking and personal leadership when he visited China as opposition leader. In yesterday's article, Gillard has suggested that the Government is working to continue the Whitlam legacy. I would suggest the recent Asian Century White Paper proves that the intellectual understanding of Whitlam and his team is lost to the current government. A greater intellectual investment of ideas is required for Australia's Asia Pacific foreign policy.
Gough Whitlam exhibited great political judgment in 1971 when he journeyed to China to discuss diplomatic relations with officials. In opposition at the time, Whitlam accused the sitting McMahon government of having 'missed the bus' on China. His foreign policy team exhibited a deep historical knowledge about international affairs by both identifying with China's view of the world while also defending Australia's alliance with the United States.
Without deeper thinking, Australia runs the risk of missing the bus again. The Gillard Government's Asian Century White Paper contained a lack of conceptual thinking and long-term planning about the future of our role in the region. Australia's current China policy is essentially a function of US policy, performing as an obedient military assistant. Meanwhile, we find ourselves engaging in a semi-containment policy with our greatest trading partner and economic companion.
The Government needs to express more explicitly its foreign policy position for Australia's future engagement in the region and needs to be more independent and creative in its thinking about China. This can be achieved through pursuing a deeper and less superficial engagement with China. The Lowy Institute's own Linda Jakobson suggests that the underdeveloped political relationship between Canberra and Beijing is at danger of escalating into a crisis if greater political communication and understanding are not pursued.
It is imperative that Australian foreign policy towards the Asia Pacific becomes more creative, independent and bold in order to avoid 'missing the bus'. The kind of boldness exhibited by Gough Whitlam is not currently apparent in Australian foreign policy leadership. Australia needs to have the courage to pursue independent views.