In the annals of Australian foreign policy, it is arguable that no moment in history has been as significant as December 21 1972. With the possible exception of the ANZUS Treaty of 1951, no other document matches the formal agreement establishing full diplomatic relations between Australia and China 50 years ago this week.

In the maelstrom of events in the meantime, it is easy to forget where we were in 1972, and where we are now in relation to the emerging dominant power in our region.

History is important to better comprehend the present.

Whitlam opens the door

In July 1971, Australia’s then opposition leader, Gough Whitlam, effectively rolled the dice politically by going to China. The trip was ostensibly to discuss trade. In reality the purpose was to lay the ground for full diplomatic recognition should he become prime minister after the 1972 election.

Whitlam took a calculated political risk in an environment in which a perceived China “threat” remained a useful wedge in the conservative political arsenal.

The Whitlam visit could hardly have been more propitious. No sooner had he left China and discussions with Premier Zhou Enlai than it was revealed that Henry Kissinger, then national security adviser to US President Richard Nixon, had paid a secret visit to China to negotiate the terms for Nixon’s mission to Beijing and Shanghai the following year.

Before the Kissinger visit became public knowledge, then Prime Minister William McMahon claimed Whitlam had been played “as a fisherman plays a trout” by Zhou. As it turned out, McMahon had hooked himself. Whitlam was well on the way to becoming Australia’s 21st prime minister, if he was not destined for that outcome anyway.

Then, as now, China played an outsize role in Australian domestic politics.