Sydney Morning Herald

By David Wroe

Former prime minister John Howard has moved to defuse the controversy over top bureaucrat Michael Thawley's dismissal of China's global leadership qualities, saying the official has played a key role in developing Australia's relationship with Beijing.

Speaking in Sydney on Thursday, Mr Howard said it was "one of the most ridiculous propositions" that Australia had to choose between having a strong relationship with the US or China.

"It should be the constant aim of Australian foreign policy to ensure that relations between the United States and China never reach such a point where Australia feels under any pressure to make any kind of choice," he said.

"And I hope the time that I spent in office, advised a lot of the time on foreign policy matters by Michael Thawley, represented something of a metaphor for believing that we could develop very close relations between Australia and both of those two critically important nations."

He was speaking after Mr Thawley, who was a key adviser to Mr Howard and is now secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, dismissed any prospect of China leading the world. Mr Thawley told a conference on Monday that the economic giant was neither willing nor able to solve global problems.

"China won't help you produce a solution," said Mr Thawley, addressing the Crawford Australian Leadership Forum at the Australian National University. "China will get in the way or get out of the way."

Asked whether China was willing or able to play a global leadership role, he said: "The answer is no, it's not willing or able to play a serious global leadership role."

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has defended Mr Thawley's remarks but Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was more equivocal, saying that while "a number of people in Australia" shared that view, there was a "counter-argument about the extraordinary rise of China as an economic power".

"With power shifting from the West to the East, China is a significant player," she said.

She added that countries like Australia needed to try to engage China with the aim of encouraging it to become a "responsible global player".

Mr Howard on Thursday also echoed Mr Thawley's earlier observation that shared values were the key to strong relationships, which Australia had with the US but not with China.

"Nothing that I experienced when I was prime minister, and nothing that I've experienced since, has altered my view that the things that bind nations together more tightly than anything else are shared values and shared philosophies," Mr Howard said.

"On that basis it is self-evident that the relationship between Australia and the United States, based on common values, common beliefs, shared experiences in war and peace ... is as tight as any bilateral relationship anywhere in the world can be."

This article was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald