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Dr Coombs goes to China

This display centres on the Bank's role in a significant moment in Australia's international relations – a visit to the People's Republic of China made by a Reserve Bank of Australia delegation led by its Governor, Dr H C Coombs. The visit took place in October 1961, at the invitation of the People's Bank of China.

Whilst today such visits are commonplace, during the 1960s, official representations by the Australian Government were very rarely made in China because Australia did not have diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China. After the replacement of the nationalist government of China by the Chinese Communist Party in 1949, the Australian Government only maintained formal diplomatic relations with the Republic of China, which continued to exist in exile on the island of Taiwan. At that time, the Australian Government did not officially acknowledge the sovereignty of the People's Republic of China. Therefore, Coombs' 1961 visit provided a pathway into a country which was still largely isolated from much of the western world both culturally and diplomatically. At the time of the visit, the only western nations to have established diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China were the United Kingdom, Sweden, Denmark, Liechtenstein, Finland and Norway. Coombs was amongst the first representatives of the Australian government to visit the People's Republic of China in an official capacity.

Whilst Coombs' visit was ostensibly arranged to discuss technical central banking matters, the meeting was of immense symbolic significance and it opened the way for further dialogue and exchange. The diary below shows that in addition to meetings related to central banking matters and visits to industrial centres, housing projects and educational institutions, Coombs made time to enjoy performing arts, exhibitions and cultural heritage sites.

Dr H C Coombs leads a Reserve Bank of Australia delegation to the People's Bank of China, October 1961. RRA Archives, PN-002841

Coombs took the opportunity to invite his Chinese hosts to make a reciprocal visit to Australia. This offer was taken up the following June when a small delegation led by Cao Juru (曹菊如), the Governor of the People's Bank of China was hosted by the Reserve Bank in Sydney. The Melbourne Herald wrote of this visit that 'the … Reserve Bank is taking the role the Department of External Affairs would have in normal diplomatic contacts'. The established pattern of exchange, knowledge sharing and reciprocal visits between central banks made possible what was unthinkable at a government-to-government level. These activities took place with the tacit consent, if not active involvement of the government of the day. That Coombs was given the latitude to conduct and host these visits was a reflection both of his personal influence and the autonomy of the Reserve Bank itself.

The first visit to China by an Australian political leader would not take place for a further decade – when Opposition Leader Gough Whitlam led a delegation there in 1971. This visit generated significant political controversy. Whitlam became Prime Minister in December 1972, and quickly moved to establish diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China. The following year, he made the first visit by an Australian Prime Minister. This marked the beginning of the normalised relations that exist between the two countries today.

Governor Dr H C Coombs with Cao Juru (曹菊如), Governor of the People's Bank of China, June 1962. RBA Archives, PN-002524