Australia’s departing top diplomat Frances Adamson has warned China’s insecurity and power can be a volatile combination, saying its “siege mentality” and resistance to scrutiny is in no one’s interests.
The secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, who finishes her five-year term on Friday, also suggested Australia may need to spend more on diplomacy and foreign aid to project its influence abroad at a time of increased uncertainty in the region.
Ms Adamson defended Australia’s handling of its deteriorating relationship with China, insisting she did not regret pushing for an independent inquiry into the coronavirus last year without first marshalling international support.
Beijing imposed more than $20 billion of trade strikes on Australia in response to the COVID-19 inquiry push, as well as other decisions such as banning Chinese telco Huawei from the 5G network.
Speaking at the National Press Club in Canberra, Ms Adamson on Wednesday said under Chinese President Xi Jinping “the clock has been wound back” by prioritising ideology and quashing voices of dissent.
“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.
“It is too ready to suspect containment instead of judging issues on their individual merits.
“This siege mentality – this unwillingness to countenance scrutiny and genuine discussion of differences – serves nobody’s interests.”
She said she always found it useful to remind herself that “that the pressure exerted outwards on other countries must also be felt within, at an individual level, by those subject to that system”.
“Insecurity and power can be a volatile combination; more so if inadvertently mishandled. We need to understand what we are dealing with.”
Ms Adamson, who was Australia’s ambassador to China between 2011 and 2015, did not rule out regime change in China but said she didn’t think it would happen any time soon.
“Authoritarian regimes are inherently brittle. If and when change comes, it may well come quite quickly,” she said.
Ms Adamson said the Chinese embassy’s move last year to deliver a list of 14 grievances to Nine News, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in Canberra was a “massive own goal by China”.
“I couldn’t understand why they did it.”
She said it may take some time for the Australia-China relationship to mend and it would only happen “when China sees its own interests as being served by a different model”.
“China is immensely pragmatic, and if and when it chooses to sit down with us and others to conduct a relationship that is constructive and mutually beneficial... we will be ready and so will others,” she said.
Australia attracted Beijing’s ire when it became the first country to call for an independent inquiry into the pandemic. While it eventually partnered with the European Union to establish the inquiry through the World Health Assembly, it didn’t secure the public support of other countries before Foreign Minister Marise Payne announced it on the ABC’s Insiders program.
Ms Adamson said criticism of the government’s approach “always puzzles me” as it was “totally obvious that an inquiry was needed”. But she later conceded that “whichever country had spoken first to get rolling an idea which absolutely at its time needed to be undertaken, there would have been a reaction to it”.
The Morning Edition newsletter is our guide to the day’s most important and interesting stories, analysis and insights. Sign up here.