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.