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Judging by the euphoria over Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s successful China visit — a delegation of 1,000 businessmen, talks and banquets with China’s top leaders — it is clear that Beijing puts much weight on its relations with Canberra. But it was not always like that. Indeed, but for a chance call to a small Nagoya manufacturer in 1971, it is quite likely relations would have stayed in deep freeze for several decades and would never have reached the warmth they have today.

The story begins on a cold, wet morning in March 1971. The world table tennis championships in Nagoya have just ended and most of the participating teams have responded to invitations to visit Beijing. It is the beginning of then-Premier Zhou Enlai’s “pingpong diplomacy,” which was finally to drag China out of its Cultural Revolution morass.

But one team is not joining the rush to China — Australia’s. Based in Tokyo at the time, I set out to find out why. By chance I locate the team’s leader, Dr. John Jackson, visiting that Nagoya manufacturer, only to be told that his team alone had not received any invitation from China.

He suggested the reason was Canberra’s long history of antagonism toward communist China. He said he was planning to visit Tokyo and I invited him to get in touch.

In Tokyo I discovered that he and his team had in fact been invited to visit China, but on instructions from Canberra, which had known in advance that invitations would be issued, had said no. Instead, Canberra had instructed the team to visit Taiwan and had even arranged visas. But most of the team had preferred to go to Tokyo for training.

I set about confirming with Beijing that the invitation was still open, which it was. We rounded up whatever remaining team members we could find in Tokyo and off we went, destination Beijing via Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Shanghai.

Back in Australia the reaction was huge, with daily headlines and TV crews sent to cover events. But at a special briefing for myself and two other reporters in Beijing, we were warned officially that if Canberra continued its hostile policies China would see good reason not to continue to purchase wheat from Australia.

The conservative anti-Beijing LCP (Liberal-Country Party) coalition government in Canberra tried to put on a brave face. But that soon disappeared when the reluctant leader of the opposition Labor Party, Gough Whitlam, was persuaded to make a visit to Beijing and it turned out that U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was making his historic visit at the same time.

The LCP coalition went on to a crushing defeat in elections the following year. The new Whitlam administration immediately opened relations with Beijing and the stage was set for the plethora of cultural and business contacts that have brought us to where we are today.

The path has not been smooth, though. Conservative distrust of China is never far below the surface in Australia and there is reason to believe that the 2010 derailment of Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, my successor by 13 years as a foreign ministry trainee in Chinese, was due to U.S. displeasure over his attempt to steer a midway foreign policy course between Beijing and Washington.

The governments that have followed Rudd have tended to go along with Washington’s military requests despite Australia’s enormous economic dependence on trade with China. They have also been happy to ratchet up defense ties with Tokyo. But Beijing seems to have sensed Turnbull’s pragmatic and mildly liberal attitudes — his daughter-in-law is Chinese and he is the only postwar Australian prime minister to have noted China’s help in defeating Japan’s World War II attempt to invade Australia.

They have turned on their impressive Beijing reception at just the moment when the debate in Australia whether to go along with the U.S. hard line over the South China Sea is heating up. Turnbull has made the ritual criticisms of Beijing’s island-dredging activities there but has so far resisted U.S. pressure publicly to join in freedom of navigation air and sea ventures in the area.

Australia’s slow move toward China still seems to be on track.

Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat and a longtime resident in Japan. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on www.gregoryclark.net .

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