There is only one significant problem in the present Australia-China relationship: the incarceration in China of the Rio Tinto executive and Australian citizen Stern Hu. All the other apparent difficulties have been around, to a greater or lesser extent, since Australia recognised China in 1972.

The relationship was never more friendly than in 1974, the mid-point of Gough Whitlam’s Labor government, which opened up relations between Australia and China.

Yet in 1974 Beijing kicked up a diplomatic row at the ABC’s decision to screen Michelangelo Antonioni’s documentary Chung Kuo, Cina. The Italian film director was then a rare member of the Western intelligentsia who objected to the brutalities of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. China did its barking, but the film was shown and the diplomatic caravan moved on.

During his visit to China last month the West Australian Premier, Colin Barnett, said: China is more important to Australia than Australia is to China.” It is understandable why a premier would focus on the perceived needs of his or her state, especially during a downturn. But prevailing evidence suggests the two economies are inter-dependent. China needs Australia and Australia needs China. This should be the message of the Gorgon agreement to export liquefied gas exported from Western Australia to China.

The governments led by Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser tended to fawn before China. Judging from his John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library Lecture last month, Paul Keating approves of such an approach. But, during their time as prime minister, both Bob Hawke and John Howard experienced difficulties with the relationship.

Hawke vocally condemned the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, and Howard met the Dalai Lama. Even so, the diplomatic relationship during this time was seldom less than cordial, while two-way trade accelerated.

Howard and Rudd have handled China differently but with similar effect. Howard in effect junked Australia’s public concern about human rights abuses in China. Never a sympathiser with the Communist regime, he made his stance by referring to the importance of Australia’s relationship with what he termed the two great democracies of the Asia-Pacific the US and Japan. However, Howard met with the Dalai Lama in 2007 against the express wishes of the Chinese leadership.

Rudd took a different tack by publicly expressing concern about human rights in Tibet during his address at Peking University last year where he spoke in Mandarin. He also met the Dalai Lama two years ago but said that he only discussed spiritual matters.

The Federal Government has granted visas to the Uyghur activist Rebiya Kadeer. Judged by its actions in government, it is most likely a re-elected Howard government would have granted her one this year.

Yet last week the opposition spokeswoman on foreign affairs, Julie Bishop, accused the Government of bungling the handling of Kadeer’s visa, and Philip Ruddock described the granting of the visa as a mistake.

On Sky News on Sunday Bishop described this year’s white paper, Defending Australia, as a needless provocation to China. It is no such thing, and broadly consistent with the Howard government’s defence policy.

It is unclear why Bishop would want to be seen as making excuses to Beijing for Australia’s essentially bipartisan defence and foreign policies. In fact, her position to the defence white paper is similar to the critique Keating expressed last month.

Bishop is but one of a number of prominent Australians who seem to be unduly concerned about the feelings of China’s leaders. Chris Uhlmann is one of the ABC’s best interviewers, and his appointment as The 7.30 Report’s political editor adds much-needed clout to this increasingly dull program. Yet during his recent interview with the visiting Chinese assistant foreign minister Liu Jieyi, Uhlmann asked surprisingly soft questions about a number of issues including Hu’s fate. In private correspondence, Uhlmann has acknowledged the validity of this criticism and said that he is happy to have his regrets for avoiding some hard questions recorded publicly.

Don Rothwell is the professor of international law at the Australian National University and appears frequently in the media as an advocate of human rights. Soon after the Uhlmann/Liu interview, Rothwell appeared on The World Today. He in effect supported Lu’s allegation that Hu engaged in bribery while working for Rio Tinto in China. Having made this assertion without the benefit of any established evidence, Rothwell went on to say that the Australian Federal Police may well be conducting independent inquiries into the matter whether there is the potential for a charge to be laid under Australian law against Stern Hu.

The federal police may, or may not, have undertaken such an inquiry. Rothwell was in no position to know this. But his interview, which should never have gone to air without an alternative view being heard, was damaging to Hu. Especially since Rothwell’s comment was picked up by other media outlets.

As the Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, has acknowledged, the Australia-China relationship is going through some difficulties. No doubt they will be resolved. In the meantime, Australia should treat China the same way we treat nations with whom we have good relations. This means not forgetting Stern Hu.