SYDNEY: China's combination of authoritarian politics and a liberalised economy is unsustainable in the long term but Australia needs to cultivate relations with Beijing because of the vast trading benefits, according to John Howard, Australian prime minister.
"I would like to fast-forward 50 years and see what has happened to this clash between economic liberalisation and expansion, and political authoritarianism," he told the Financial Times. "Something's got to give. It's a tension."
In an interview marking his 10th anniversary as prime minister, Mr Howard brushed aside security concerns over China and said he would openly engage with Beijing, even though the country made "a lot of people nervous".
"We've always made it very clear to the Americans that there is a strong streak of pragmatism in our relationship with China," he said.
China imports billions of dollars' worth of Australian resources such as iron ore to underpin its industrialisation and the two countries are negotiating a bilateral trade agreement.
"We would be crazy not to cultivate the relationship. In China there's a hugely valuable market for Australia," Mr Howard said. "There are 400,000 people of Chinese descent living in Sydney and Chinese tourists are coming here in great numbers."
Mr Howard said Australia would not go "overboard" with China. He pledged to continue a close trade and security relationship with Japan and he will soon visit India to build "strategic" ties.
He said Australia was carefully watching the growing tension between China and Japan and would raise the subject at the forthcoming inaugural meeting in Sydney of the Trilateral Security Dialogue, which includes the foreign ministers of Australia, the US and Japan. They will also discuss North Korea.
Mr Howard, who has been a staunch ally of US President George W. Bush in the "war on terror", said he was unconcerned by the threat made by Islamic extremists in reaction to Australian troops being sent to Iraq and Afghanistan. "I'm not going to gear Australian foreign policy according to the attitude of radical Muslims," he said.
Late last month, Mr Howard criticised Muslim immigrants who "rave on about jihad" instead of integrating. But he said he would seek to work through the community to solve the problem rather than legislate.