Recognising the People's Republic of China: A Reappraisal of Australian Foreign Policy during the First Menzies Ministry 1950-51

By Penrose, Sandra K. | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, June 1998 | Go to article overview

Recognising the People's Republic of China: A Reappraisal of Australian Foreign Policy during the First Menzies Ministry 1950-51


Penrose, Sandra K., The Australian Journal of Politics and History


The attitude of the early Menzies Government towards the recognition of the People's Republic of China has not been well understood in the literature on Australia's international relations. The early Menzies regime has been taken by some scholars to be implacably opposed to communism, including Chinese communism, by others to have ceased to consider recognition because of the Korean War and by a third contingent to have been responsive to United States pressure not to recognise the Chinese communist government. A perusal of the foreign policy documents of the period of the first Menzies ministry reveals that both Menzies and Spender were giving favourable consideration to recognising the People's Republic of China during late 1950 and early 1951 and that none of these three views was decisive in preventing recognition. The question for Menzies and Spender was not whether to recognise but when to recognise and the actions of the Chinese communists themselves, in particular their attitude to British recognition, created the greatest impediment to recognition by Australia at that time.

The purpose of this article is to challenge the existing views regarding the attitude of Prime Minister Menzies and Foreign Minister Spender to the recognition of the People's Republic of China (PRC) and to give some indication of how this issue is related to the broader interpretations of Australia's foreign policy and international relations. The existing analyses of the recognition question have suffered from certain preconceptions about the foreign policy of the Menzies era. In particular, Australian foreign policy is represented as uniformly dependent on its allies and hostile to communism. The alternative proposition to be supported in this paper is that during the period of the first post-war Menzies ministry, it was a question of circumstances delaying recognition of the People's Republic of China, rather than dependence or ideological principle preventing it. The article indicates that, contrary to the views put forward in the literature on the recognition question, both Menzies and Spender were favourable to extending recognition during 1950-51.

The position of the early Menzies Government on the question of recognition of the Peoples Republic of China has not been well understood in the literature on Australian international relations of the period. In the case of the Menzies Government which assumed office in December 1949, it has been widely assumed that because of their opposition to communism, there was never any prospect of the Menzies Government granting recognition to communist China.(1) Even those authors on Australian international relations who do not subscribe to this view have tended to see the Korean War as putting any question of recognition out of consideration.(2) Finally there are a number of authors who link the failure of the Australian Government to recognise the Chinese communist regime directly with the origins of the ANZUS Pact.(3) The documents that are now accessible in the Australian, British and American archives reveal that for the period under review, all these views on the recognition question are mistaken.

Some of these interpretations are related to issues of wider significance in the analysis of international relations in general and analysis of the foreign policy of the Menzies Government in particular. Questions concerning the role of ideology, the influence of domestic considerations on foreign policy, the continuity or discontinuity of foreign policy with a change of government, the place of personalities and personal issues in decision making and of course the extent to which Australia was pursuing a dependent or independent line in international relations are all involved in the analysis of this issue.

The Menzies Government came to power as a result of their victory in the election of December 1949 just two months after the People's Republic had been proclaimed by Mao Zedong.

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