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Top Aussie diplomat’s China warning

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China is motivated by the “volatile combination” of power and insecurity and the prospect of a short-term shift in its outlook is non-existent, Australia’s outgoing top diplomat warns.

Speaking at the National Press Club on Wednesday, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) secretary Frances Adamson claimed Beijing suffered from a “siege mentality”, but its targeting of Australia was unprecedented.

Ms Adamson will end a DFAT career spanning more than two decades, including a stint as ambassador to China between 2011 and 2015, on Friday before becoming governor of South Australia in October.

She said China’s increasingly aggressive posture masked a deep uncertainty over its place in the world, arguing “we need to understand what we’re dealing with”.

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“Few really grasp that this great power is still dogged by insecurity as much as driven by ambition, that it has a deeply defensive mindset, perceiving external threats, even as it pushes its interests over those of others,” she said.

Bilateral relations have rapidly deteriorated over the past 18 months, as China slapped a range of trade sanctions on Australian products and its diplomats cut contact with their counterparts.

Ms Adamson insisted Canberra remained “proactive and open” to thawing the relationship but conceded it had taken a partly-defensive stance on Beijing.

“Insecurity and power can be a volatile combination, more so if inadvertently mishandled,” she warned.

Though acknowledging “resilience and internal cohesion” were important to Australia’s approach, the DFAT secretary described debate as a “strength, not a weakness”.

The trade war was seemingly prompted by Canberra’s call for an independent inquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020.

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But Ms Adamson insisted she had no regrets over Australia pushing for the probe before marshalling international support, describing the need as “so totally obvious”.

“We immediately swung into action through our diplomacy and worked with a wide range of like-minded partners to produce, ultimately, what is a good result,” she said.

“It will take time to work through the system. Everyone seems to be fascinated with this, (but) it’s really not fascinating.”

The Lowy Institute’s annual poll this week showed Australians’ trust in China had dropped to record lows, and more than half saw the prospect of conflict between the US and China as a critical threat to Australia.

Ms Adamson described Beijing’s targeting of foreign journalists, including Australians, as a “sad irony” and Chinese influence had declined “steeply” in Australia.

“Those media voices on the ground give us an appreciation of what China is about, in all its dynamism and complexity. Less access, less dialogue means less understanding,” she said.

“This siege mentality, this unwillingness to countenance scrutiny and genuine discussion of differences, serves nobody’s interests.”

The Chinese Communist Party in 2018 removed a two-term limit on the president, paving the way for Xi Jinping to remain in power for life.

Ms Adamson’s DFAT career spanned a period in which China opened up to the international community, created a legal system, and focused more heavily on civil rights.

But she described the reversal under President Xi as arguably the “most consequential change” in recent Chinese history, warning there was little prospect of short-term change.

“The clock has been wound back,” she said.

“Authoritarian regimes are inherently brittle. If and when change comes, it may well come quite quickly. But I would not want to create any sense at all that that is a near-term prospect.”

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