ROSS Terrill, one of Australia’s best known experts on China, who has been based at Harvard University in the US for most of the past 50 years, warns that for Canberra to align on security issues with Beijing “bristles with difficulties”.

He does not believe Australia is faced with a frightening choice between our great ally and our main trading partner. While commending Hugh White for instigating a lively debate with his book The China Choice, he says this thesis “underestimates Australia’s power to say yes or no in concrete diplomatic situations”.

Terrill, a visiting senior fellow at the Australia Strategic Policy Institute, says: “We can be economically open to China and still speak up for Australian values. I know some people think there is a contradiction there, but I think we have to do both. We should welcome the trade and investment with China but should never give the impression we are packing our values away in a trunk – China wouldn’t respect us for that.”

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The aftermath of China’s fatal high-speed rail crash in July was a reminder that the foundations of the country’s remarkable economic growth are perhaps not as solid as some may suggest.

With the outpouring of anger and grief came a series of accusations over what was to blame for the crash, corruption, cheap equipment and botched reverse-engineering among them. It was barely the best advert for a new rail network that was supposed to be yet another signal of China’s arrival as a modern global superpower.

Of course the West still looks on at China with envy; its growth rate remains at a level most can only dream of. China has revelled in the role of the white knight riding to the rescue of the global economy, buying up US and European debt and even lecturing the US on fiscal responsibility.

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