John Howard, visiting Washington last month, starkly displayed these differences when he and President George Bush spoke on the touchstone issue of China.
Standing next to Howard, Bush described America's relations with Beijing as "complex" and "complicated". "We've got issues when it comes to values," he said, and asked Howard to "work together to reinforce the need for China to accept certain values as universal."
Howard turned him down, flat. He told Bush: "We have a good relationship with China. It's not just based on economic opportunity. We are unashamed in developing our relations with China. I'll do everything I can in the interests of Australia to ensure it develops further."
The day before, he had said his approach was "to build on the things that we have in common, and not become obsessed with the things that make us different".
This is pragmatic politics at its most pragmatic - and the logic works. There are fundamental differences in values and philosophies between Australia and the US on one hand, and China on the other. Its a political truism to acknowledge this vast gulf of difference. The question is how to reconcile the two. It seems unlikely that China will move toward free markets, democracy and respect for the succession desires of some of its population by political isolation. Instead, engagement is needed. Similarly, there is little to gain for the western state which refuses to engage with China diplomatically or economically - the only state harmed is the state who refuses to engage.
Over at The Australian, Greg Sheridan presents an tempting, but ultimately wrong, alternative approach, framed with reference to Taiwan:
China regards Taiwan as a renegade province that must one day reunite with the mainland. Tiawan (sic) is independent in everything but name. It was for a long time ruled by the Kuomintang, which lost the civil war to the communists. Now Taiwan is a democracy and the KMT is the Opposition. The US, although notionally subscribing to the one China policy, is pledged to defend Taiwan. Now that everyone is joining up to the China boom it has been dismal to watch the way dollars trump democracy or human rights, and governments of Left and Right are happy to connive in the strangulation of Taiwan.
Sheridan's position is high on principle but low on practical effect. He suggests that Australia should not be afraid of getting the Chinese offside on a matter of principle, ie Taiwanese independence. The problem with this proposition is that it would cut Australia off from the significant and tangible benefits that a good relationship with China provides in order for us to feel warm and fuzzy for supporting our fellow democratic travellers, the Taiwanese.
Australia should stand by Taiwan, and do whatever it can to engage with it as a democractic ally in a part of the world that boasts very few democracies. Trade links, second-track diplomacy and quietly whispered words of support are all healthy and desirable. What Australia shouldn't do, however, is compromise our relationship with China over the issue.
Regardless of the outcome of the bullying of Taiwan, the talks in North Korea, the suppression of Falun Gung or the painfully slow development of Chinese democracy, the reality remains that China is going to be a major player in the 21st century, and it would be in Australia's national interest to be on good terms with the People's Republic. Tempting as it is to stand atop our soapbox and shrilly condemn the Chinese, there is a more sensible - and pragmatic - alternative. Engagement rather than isolation with China is smart politics, and positions Australia well for the political dynamic of the next couple of decades.
UPDATE, 20/8, 6:34pm: I was disappointed to see that I'd attracted some blog-comment spam. I removed it as soon as I noticed it, and hope like hell that it doesn't become a regular feature of the blogworld. It does lead on to the scary prospect that spam might become a feature of SMSs on mobile phones, which is all the more possible with free online SMS services. How many times to we need to tell them to get fucked?