No Conflict on Shared Values

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Lord Palmerston's dictum in the Victorian era, that "England has no permanent friends or enemies, just permanent interests", captures the realist approach to foreign policy.

Happily, the relations of states can be different in this more democratic era. The friendship between countries with shared respect for the rule of law, for democratic pluralism and for universal human rights can be strained but it should never be shattered.

Military conflict between many of the antagonists of World War II is almost unimaginable today because of the profound changes that have taken place in countries' self-perceptions.

In countries such as Germany and Japan, dictatorship or government by a military caste has given way to liberal democratic rule that better reflects their people's true instincts. In countries such as the US, Britain and Australia, national pride has been tempered by greater respect and appreciation for other cultures.

It's right that we remember the past and learn from it. We shouldn't shirk from moral judgments, sometimes harsh ones.

Still, Australians have accepted Japan's apologies and no longer hold the war against them or against the Germans; any more, I hope, than the Japanese now hold the former White Australia policy against us. These were terrible mistakes that did not reflect our nations' true and best selves.

A consciousness of our own flaws, an awareness that right and wrong rarely all lie on one side, and a sense of solidarity with others, even those we disagree with, normally pervades liberal democratic societies and mostly saves them from catastrophic mistakes.

Well-established liberal democracies have argued with each other and tried to take advantage of each other but they've never actually fought with each other.

This is the best refutation of Palmerston's jaunty but ultimately dismal counsel.

I wish Japan was not so stubbornly committed to whaling and hope that, on this issue, the better angels of its nature eventually may prevail.

This is a matter on which Australians have strong feelings that should be expressed candidly, as is best among friends. Pluralist democracies should be able to have these sorts of arguments without rancour and, as a last resort, litigate over them in international tribunals. Still, they don't normally let their disputes define their relationships.

In countries where the government depends on the people's consent, a capacity to see things from the other person's perspective becomes almost innate.

Between liberal democracies, common interests may wax or wane, but friendship rarely breaks because we have much the same ways of thinking about problems and much the same means of resolving them.

We have different histories and languages but increasingly inhabit the same mental universe.

Sharing liberal democratic values is akin to sharing a culture, a political culture at least. It provides a common set of ideas and a common framework of thinking.

At its heart is the appreciation that it's better to make friends than enemies coupled with the understanding that making new friends shouldn't mean abandoning old ones.

Of course, mutual self-interest is important but it's not the same as common values as a basis for lasting friendship.

The global financial crisis has underlined the Asia-Pacific region's relative economic resilience and highlighted the shifts in the world's centre of economic gravity. The Asia-Pacific region is crucial to future global economic stability and growth. The rise of China is, of course, a defining feature of Asia's growing influence. So is the parallel rise of India.

These shifts are complementing the established economic strengths of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

As China's weight grows, so do its international responsibilities. China's economic growth has averaged 10 per cent in the past two decades and is expected to continue near that rate for some time.

Its economy is 90 times bigger than when Deng Xiaoping ditched communist economic policies in favour of free-market reforms in 1978. It is the world's second biggest economy and the world's biggest exporter.

On some forecasts, the Chinese economy is set to overtake that of the US within two decades. It's worth remembering, though, that similar predictions were being made of Japan in the 1980s.

China's economic achievement is an unambiguous good. It has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. It has underpinned dramatic increases in trade, especially for key resource exporters such as Australia.

It has helped to sustain the prosperity of all its economic partners, including Japan. It's in everyone's interests that China should continue to prosper and that this prosperity should become more widely distributed among its people and regions.

The question for the wider world is the extent to which official China focuses on achieving a better life for its own people or on securing a stronger role for itself in the Asia-Pacific region.

The issue for China is the extent to which the Communist Party seeks to maintain its leading role or allows political freedom commensurate with China's increasing economic freedom.

Continued economic growth in China is important for everyone's prosperity. The worry is that an even more powerful yet still authoritarian China could be a difficult neighbour. The likelihood is that a more democratic China will be at least as focused on domestic policy as on the business of being a great power.

Successive Australian governments have been benevolent spectators as the Chinese have debated the extent to which economic liberalisation should eventually be matched by political liberalisation. The sticking points in the relationship with China remain the way it deals with internal dissent, prosecutes its territorial claims and handles commercial disputes.

These issues simply don't arise in most of Australia's other important relationships. The challenge is not to let the areas of disagreement sour the whole relationship or compromise the wider sphere in which co-operation is in everyone's interests.

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