Outgoing Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Frances Adamson has described China as ‘dogged by insecurity’, warning that this insecurity can be volatile.
Ahead of her departure from the Australian Public Service on Friday, Adamson recounted her experience in witnessing Xi Jinping’s rise from vice president to president of China in 2013, when she was Australia’s ambassador to China.
“Arguably, it is in that period, and the time since then that we’ve seen the most consequential change,” she told the National Press Club on Wednesday.
“The clock has been wound back in terms of the priority accorded to ideology, quashing voices of civil society, and erecting new barriers to external connections, and the free flow of information.”
Adamson does not see the clock ‘winding forward’ anytime soon. However, she noted that ‘when change comes, it may well come quite quickly’.
While touching on Australian agency in a complex world, Adamson listed off Australia’s ‘big agendas’ including the region’s recovery from COVID-19, climate change, evolving international rules, and the response to China’s growing power and ambitions.
“What matters in the face of this is Australia’s ability to determine and exercise choice, and to exert influence built on strong domestic foundations, a vibrant economy and a cohesive, open and confident society,” she said.
“Diplomacy is and must remain our first response to a rapidly changing world.”
And no challenge ‘better demonstrates the need for active creative diplomacy than China’, Adamson argued.
“[China] represents the single most important variable in our external environment,” she said.
The secretary said that, while China is driven by ambition, it is also ‘dogged by insecurity’.
“It is too ready to suspect containment, instead of judging issues on their individual merits. And I always find it useful to remind myself when faced with strident official representations, that the pressure exerted outwards on other countries must also be felt within at an individual level by those subject to that system,” she said.
“Insecurity and power can be a volatile combination. More so, if inadvertently mishandled. We need to understand what we’re dealing with.”
China is losing influence in Australia, which Adamson noted has been confirmed in a new poll released by the Lowy Institute this week.
The poll found that more than 63% of Australians see China as a security threat than an economic partner — a 22-point increase from 2020. More than half (56%) said China was ‘more to blame’ than Australia for the strained Australia-China relationship. Just 16% of Australians trust China to act responsibly in the world, a 7-point decline from 2020.
“What we tell the Chinese government is that we are not interested in promoting containment or regime change. We want to understand and respond carefully for shared advantage, not to feed its insecurity or proceed down a spiral of miscalculation,” Adamson added.