SINGAPORE – Australia and China, despite their differences, need to find common ground as economic ties between the two are important, said John Howard, former Australian Prime Minister.
"The economic relationship between Australia and China is very important and there are tensions in this relationship and they must be addressed," Howard said on Wednesday on the sidelines of the Singapore summit.
Relations between the two countries were fraught with tension. Beijing opened an investigation into some wine imports from Australia last month after measures were taken against other raw material imports.
"I definitely don't think that Australia should get into a situation where it gives up its relationship with China. This is very important to us. Our raw material exports (like) iron ore, coal and the like are very important to the Australian economy," said Howard, who served from 1996 to 2007.
China is one of Australia's most important trading partners. The Asian business enterprise buys a large part of the raw material products produced in Down Under.
The latest downward spiral in China-Australia relations was sparked by Canberra's call for an international investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, first reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
Howard made no mention of the investigation, but stressed the need for Australia to maintain a balanced approach to its relations with China – even as tensions between the US – Canberra's closest ally – and China ease.
"I don't think we should let ourselves be defined by who we should support between China and the United States. We can have good relations with these two countries, albeit different ones, because we are different societies," he said.
"I see the bilateral relationship between Australia and China as something that we must cultivate and cultivate according to our own interests, always remembering, of course, that we are part of a group of Western countries who believe in some core values," added Howard added.
Instead, despite their different histories and political systems, Australia and China need to find consensus, he said.
"In these troubled times, especially with the pandemic, it is extremely important to take a balanced approach and find areas where there is common consensus," said Howard.
Regarding raw materials like wine, Howard said, "Let the process work, let's not over-dramatize some of the differences that arise."
China's Authoritarian Regime "a fact of life"
Howard said that although China has taken a more assertive stance internationally since President Xi Jinping took office, its internal political system has not changed significantly – it is only being enforced more strictly now than in the past.
"China has been an authoritarian country run by the Chinese Communist Party since 1949, and that is a fact of life we have to work in," he added.
"You cannot expect a country with a fundamentally different political system to agree to a change in this system. You have to live with it – without, of course, admitting a reason for things that are important to our own values," he said.
Rather than thwarting economic ties between the two countries, Australia must work to preserve its core values while preserving the mutual benefits of economic ties with China.
"It's more than just common sense, it's a matter of good long-term policy," he said.