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When Gough Whitlam first travelled to China, he is reputed to have asked Mao Zedong his opinion of the French Revolution in 1789.

The Chairman is reputed to have replied: “It’s too early to tell.”

That comment could well be applied to evaluating the first 50 years of the formal diplomatic recognition of the People’s Republic of China by Australia. This diplomatic recognition ranks as one of the most significant diplomatic events in Australia history since Federation.

In 1972, China was infamous for the Little Red Book, and among all of the popular quotes taken from the book perhaps the most relevant for today is from Chairman Mao’s comments at the opening address at the eighth national congress of the Communist Party in 1956. He said: “We must endeavour to establish normal diplomatic relations, on the basis of mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, with all countries willing to live together with us in peace.” Those comments still ring true today.

When he became Prime Minister, Whitlam’s single-handed recognition of China in 1972 was consolidated by a series of excellent diplomatic appointments by Australia. The foundation ambassador was Dr Stephen Fitzgerald and he remains one of Australia’s foremost China experts. Among other skilled diplomats who advanced Australian and Chinese mutual interests was Dr Geoff Raby, whom I have the pleasure of working with.

A range of Australian politicians contributed to expanding and growing the relationship. These included the far-sighted Paul Keating who understood the inevitable conclusion that Australia had to place itself in the Asia Pacific region and become part of it. Prime Minister Rudd continued in this tradition but it was Trade Minister Andrew Robb, whom I worked with in subsequent years, who arguably achieved one of the most significant advances after the diplomatic recognition.

It was he who successfully concluded the years of negotiations around the China Australia Free Trade Agreement, which remains the bedrock of the Australia-China relationship and is one of the most fruitful of all the fruits of the diplomatic recognition.

But 50 years of diplomatic recognition bought more than political and trade benefits. It is the cultural exchanges, the tourism, the people-to-people contacts that are just as important because they increase the cultural understanding of both countries.

As chair of the Confucius Institute advisory board I appreciate the important role it plays in improving knowledge and understanding of China. The Darwin Confucius Institute was the last to be approved and it was at the personal request of then Chief Minister Paul Henderson to then Vice President Xi Jinping.

From the Northern Territory perspective, we cannot forget the open-hearted recognition and cooperation initiated by Mr Henderson, which was pursued by Chief Minister Adam Giles and their successors. Further work was undertaken by Ministers Peter Styles, Daryl Manzie, Wilhelm Westra Van Holthe and now Lord Mayor Kon Vatskalis. Since 2004, the Australia China Business Council NT (ACBC) has played a significant role in developing that relationship. Diplomatic relations with China have helped in NT development with agricultural investment, investment in resources and investment in infrastructure, such as the Jemena gas pipeline.

The expansion of Darwin port has played, and will continue to play, a significant role in improving the maritime links between the NT and the ASEAN China region. This is achieved through an increased ability to handle live cattle exports, the expansion of bulk commodity handling facilities and progress towards upgrading containerisation facilities.

The diplomatic recognition has enabled business investment in the Territory and facilitated the growth of Chinese tourism, immigration and through students from China, assisted with the expansion of Charles Darwin University.

Nationally, the ACBC was closely involved in the visits to China by Prime Ministers Gillard and Abbot. It was involved in the visit by President XI to Australia and hosted the visits by Premier Li Keqiang. The ACBC plays a significant role in the development and implementation of trade policy in relation to China, representing the voice of Australian businesses doing business in and with China. In terms of the Northern Territory, the council is actively involved in trade missions, investment promotion and trade expos in China. In 2018, with support from the NT Government, the council hosted the largest international Belt and Road conference held in Australia with speakers travelling from China.

The Northern Territory has a long history of engagement with China, stretching back to the voyages of the Ming Dynasty Chinese Admiral Zheng He. He visited Darwin and one of his crew members left behind a carving of Shou Lao, the Chinese god of longevity. The Northern Territory became the southern most point of the Maritime Silk Road. Despite this ancient connection, the Territory has remained a sometimes neglected stub in terms of the past 50 years of the diplomatic relationship.

liIn the next 50 years, China can play a role in building a $40 billion economy as an export destination for cattle, agricultural produce and minerals. It contributes to capital inflows for projects in the green energy space and the development of resource industries. The expansion of international student intake from China encourages the expansion of Chinese tourism and makes it easier to build air freight links with China via Shenzhen.