You've likely not read about it, but tragic news emerged this week from remote Sichuan province that two teenage monks of a besieged Tibetan monastery had set themselves alight in a desperate last defence of their culture and heritage. Also this week, and given far more prominence in Australian media, Prime Minister Julia Gillard signalled a greater emphasis on relations with China while commissioning a White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century.

While clearly there was no direct link between these two incidents, their juxtaposition highlights an uncomfortable truth for the Chinese and Australian governments alike.

Such stories from Tibet have become frighteningly common and it's well understood among a majority of Australian politicians that China's "economic miracle" and unrelenting development drive has exacted a grave toll on the land and people of Tibet.

So why did the latter story, which prompted extended pieces in The New York Times and Guardian after hitting the international news wires, go largely unreported in Australia? More to the point, why has Tibet all but dropped out of public and political debate surrounding the Australia-China relationship?

Chinese officials, from the President down to the Chinese ambassador in Canberra, have been remarkably successful in entrenching the myth that we cannot raise Tibet without jeopardising our own economic future. The most modest and low-level diplomatic representations over Tibet, East Turkestan, Taiwan or any number of other sensitive issues are met with the now familiar cries of "damage to bilateral relations" or the "hurt feelings of the Chinese people". Australia under Kevin Rudd was accused of such faux pas more than once, only to see Chinese investment in Australia skyrocket. With China ever more dependent on Australian ore, our relationship to Beijing is one of interdependence and we must comport ourselves accordingly.

You don't have to be the Treasurer to appreciate the importance of the Australia-China relationship. But the notion that it is in Australia's best interests to forge ahead with joint economic ventures while staying tight-lipped on known problems inside China and Tibet is as short-sighted as it is morally disappointing. The habit of rolling over and allowing Beijing to dictate the terms and shrug off constructive criticism of its handling of Tibet will hold inevitable consequences for Australia down the line.

Like any complex challenge, the relationship requires us to look beyond immediate benefits and consider the outcomes across a suitably long timeframe. We must consider not only how to add a few percentage points to next quarter's economic growth but equally what sort of world we want to inhabit in 10, 20 or 100 years. Do we want to see China's culturally rich and environmentally important peripheral regions steamrolled in Beijing's unrestrained push for strategic and economic superiority? Similarly, as the doors are opened ever wider to Chinese investors, are we comfortable with the Chinese development model being exported to Australia?

As the initial shock and sadness at the latest heart-aching story from Tibet subsides, it's time to ask how much longer we are willing to put these questions aside.

China's achievement in lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty is indeed an extraordinary feat. When the world (Australia excluded) points the finger at China's failings without acknowledging its successes, it is right to remind us of such facts.

A defender of China's policy in Tibet is quick to point out that, across most standard wellbeing indicators, including life expectancy, Tibetans appear in better shape than a half century ago. While discrepancies between official statistics and independent reports can be extreme, these claims probably hold an element of truth and have successfully won over many former detractors.

Nonetheless, such assertions are grossly misleading. For anyone fortunate enough to visit this beautiful part of the planet, a different picture soon emerges.

While today's Tibetans may live longer than their grandparents, more significant is the wellbeing gap between Tibetans and the majority Han population. Displaced from their land yet unable to get a foothold in the new Han-dominated industries, innumerable Tibetans have been left unemployed and disenfranchised. The Tibet Autonomous Region has the onerous distinction of the widest rich-poor and urban-rural divides of anywhere in the People's Republic of China.

While there are signs that the more moderate among China's power elite are willing to take the Tibet issue more seriously, no government handouts can restore pride and identity to a people whose very way of life has been torn apart by their colonisers. No amount of "patriotic education" can shake a people's attachment to their own heritage. And, as China's litany of environmental mismanagement shows, no Beijing planners can understand the Tibetan plateau better than those who have flourished sustainably on the roof of the world for a thousand generations.

The homogenising effect of Chinese development policy and the steady erosion of Tibet's unique culture are both a tragedy for Tibetans and an irreplaceable loss for the world at large. Strangely, the West's penchant for all things Tibetan, be it the practical wisdom of Tibetan Buddhism or the Dalai Lama's message of kindness and universal responsibility, is yet to be matched by any real concern for the wellbeing of the 6 million Tibetans.

As US power diminishes relative to China and Australia continues to deepen its ties to Beijing, it's time for Australia to live up to its growing responsibilities in the region. With this in mind, how much longer are we willing to ignore Tibet?

Dr Simon Bradshaw is a director of the Australia Tibet Council and member of the Steering Committee of the International Tibet Network.