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  • [L to R] Bob Carr, Stephen Fitzgerald and David Irvine address the ACRI event. (SBS Radio / Pamela Cook)Source: SBS Radio / Pamela Cook
China and Australia have been conducting diplomatic relations for 43 years. In that time the two nations have built many political, social and economic ties. How did this relationship evolve? And what are the challenges for those tasked with making connections? This week, two former Australian Ambassadors to China, Stephen Fitzgerald and David Irvine, spoke to the Australia-China Relations Institute about their experiences.
SBS Radio / Pamela Cook

20 Apr 2015 - 3:48 PM  UPDATED 20 Apr 2015 - 3:48 PM

Stephen Fitzgerald was Australia's first Ambassador to China, appointed by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam 1973 and serving in the role until 1976.

He says in the early 1970's establishing a relationship with China was extremely difficult.

"It was quite difficult to conduct relations at the official's level and many officials were frightened of dealing with foreigners and people in the street were not supposed to deal with foreigners at all, we were what was known as off limits, forbidden territory, jin chu was the Chinese term."

Discussions between Chinese and Australian officials were strictly controlled.

"It was extremely difficult to develop relationships with Chinese officials, in fact most of the time you were not able to talk about anything. When you made an appointment for a meeting you had to specify what was going to be the topic of discussion and you couldn't move outside that discussion."

With little information flowing from China, his team looked for news through other channels, including reading newspapers, looking at media outside China and getting information from other embassies.

While Mr Fitzgerald was first appointed by Gough Whitlam, it was Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser who continued the emphasis on China.

He credits the late Mr Fraser for his practical approach - focusing on building a relationship despite each country's political differences.

"He said many times to the Chinese Prime Minister, let's set aside ideology, let's have a relationship that can be built without our various ideological positions."

It was a very different atmosphere in China for diplomat David Irvine. Serving as Ambassador from 2000 to 2003, Mr Irvine says he first was posted to China in 1982. He says the Australian Government was then looking to build economic ties.

"China under Deng Xiaoping was three or four, five years out of the Cultural Revolution they were conduction their opening up policies and so on. And right back at that stage the Australian Government had a very, very clear view of what I'll call an economic enmeshment with China."

Now China was more relaxed and open in their dealings with Australia.

"Over a period of time, things really began to click and open up. Whereas Steve had much more difficulty dealing with Chinese officials, we were finding that they were in a period of transition. And they were starting to come to parties, they'd join in the songs, and started to go out of their way to cultivate us and to talk much much more than they had in the past."

He points to the restoration of Confucius' tomb as a strong symbol of China's new open attitude.

"I went to a place called Qufu which is the home of Confucius, and the tombstone of Confucius had been recently resurrected and if you want something symbolic in terms of a journey out of chaos back into what I keep calling, without ever being able to define it, 'Chineseness' I think that was it."

In 2002, Mr Irvine oversaw the biggest single export deal between China and Australia, the $25 billion dollar deal to sell China liquefied natural gas. He says it was the personal relationships between the two countries that helped seal the contract.

"But it was the overall personal relationships firstly, and secondly the huge amount of effort that had gone in not just during the Howard years but in previous ten, fifteen years, I guess right back to Steve, the huge amount of effort that had gone into building up a multi-faceted relationship with China where they were confident in dealing with us."

Mr Irvine says Australia's relationship with China is now about more than just economics.

"We had all sorts of exchanges going right across the board, which were designed at encouraging friendship, knowledge, educational exchanges, artistic exchanges and so on and so forth."

But what did China think of us? To David Irvine, we were an outwardly friendly nation.

"We were demonstrably non-threatening, even though we were part of an alliance which includes the United States and all sorts of things, we did not threaten China, we didn't have a, and they used to harp on this a lot, didn't really have a history of threatening or maligning China in any way."

What does the future hold for our relationship with China? Both men say the current Federal Government needs to do more. Stephen Fitzgerald says there is no long term plan.

"The government relations and the government policies are critically important and there is no, in contemporary terms, there's no narrative from the Government about the long term, where they think we should be with China in fifteen or twenty or twenty-five years' time."

David Irvine agrees.

"We need to have a much clearer vision of what our interests are and our strategic interests in this whole region of which China is going to be undoubtedly the single biggest influence."

Stephen Fitzgerald says we need to understand what China will be seeking as well.

"What does China want? How does China see itself, our region and Australia in say 2025. Because there is a lot that's going on."

David Irvine says Australia, China and the United States all need to be included for a peaceful Asia Pacific region.

"We want to have to a region that is able as it's own architecture and is able to solve it's own problems within the region without the use of force. And that requires China to come to the party and it requires the United States to come to the party and I don't accept the fact that we can have an economic relationship with China and a military relationship with the United States, they are not mutually exclusive."