On paper, nobody could have better prepared to guide Australia's relationship with China in such turbulent times than outgoing Foreign Affairs secretary Frances Adamson. Before being chosen to head the department in 2016 she'd been Malcolm Turnbull's international adviser and Stephen Smith's chief of staff; Ambassador to Beijing (2011-15); in Taipei (2001-05); and from 1987 to 1991 watched from Hong Kong as the mainland soared through the excitement of political opening to the despair of tanks on the streets. She understands China and has been the trusted adviser playing a key role guiding our politicians as they interacted with our largest trading partner.
So how could our bilateral relationship be in a worse situation today than at any period since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1972? What explains this failure?
Adamson's answer is simple. Xi Jinping.
The secretary doesn't directly blame China's leader for the current dire situation. Nevertheless the timeline fits too neatly to be ignored. She insists "this great power is still dogged by insecurity" and "insecurity and power can be a volatile combination". It's a robust critique grounded in a deep understanding of how one man, Xi, has been able to seize power; appoint himself leader for life; and apparently centralise everything under his control. Articulated in this way the challenge to our broader interests and vision of the way the world works is obvious.
So how should Canberra react to what's occurring? Adamson didn't offer any pathway out of the current stasis when she spoke at the National Press Club last Wednesday. Beijing is, she told the audience, currently subjecting Canberra to intense pressure as a way of driving "a fundamental policy rethink" but such actions were having a counter-productive effect here because of the "broad bipartisanship of our most fundamental policy settings".
Maybe. But if so, perhaps its these very settings that need to change.
Our current policy certainly isn't achieving anything positive. If both sides continue playing a zero-sum game and refusing to offer an olive branch to the other the deterioration will simply continue until a final rupture ends in tragedy. We employ diplomats to find ways out of such confrontation, rather than simply focusing a magnifying glass on the extent of our differences. So yes, while Adamson might be quite right and China is the root cause of the current rupture, insisting that's the case isn't likely to solve the problems. Perhaps we need to examine our own attitudes as well.
It's not good enough to assign all the blame for our current problems to Beijing's attitude. Something has gone very wrong and either our politicians, or our diplomats, have failed to put the relationship back on track or explain why Australia is being so obviously singled out for punishment. The obvious culprit seems to be the politicians.
Why, for example, did Scott Morrison so provocatively become the lead voice in blaming China and demanding an inquiry into the origins of coronavirus? An international investigation was coming anyway, so why was it necessary for us to lead with our chin rather than working behind the scenes to ensure it was properly equipped to do the job? We've repeatedly chosen posturing and hard-blowing rhetoric and used noise to accomplish tasks that actually required a bit of quiet diplomacy. Ah, that word! Diplomacy. So perhaps it's not the politicians we should really be blaming after all. Perhaps the real weakness in this vital international relationship has been allowed to emerge because the very people who should have been working behind the scenes to make sure was properly oiled and working properly just gave up.
The mood at Adamson's farewell Press Club lunch was appropriately celebratory. After all, she's off to finish her career as Governor of South Australia and both Foreign Minister Marise Payne and opposition spokesperson Penny Wong were there to listen. The departing words of advice seemed to be, however, simply to cherish and uphold our values - something that should be obvious and need no repetition. What we need is not a guide to talking tough but rather to see our way through to creating a new understanding based on recognising what can be achieved and finding a way to work through what can't.
Adamson's always been well-connected (she's the daughter of a South Australian Liberal politician) and yet, amazingly, there were obviously no more than two people of Chinese heritage among the many hundreds attending the Press Club for her final address. Making room to hear female voices at the top table is vital, but along with that comes the need for a broader diversity of ethnicity as well. Perhaps some other approaches and insights might have offered other ways of seeing our way through this challenge.
We all need to discover our own modus vivendi, or way of living together, whether in our private lives or as we strut the international stage. Doing so requires understanding, not dogmatism. The pathway that will allow us to achieve this is by talking and not simply continuing to insist our way is correct.
Too little is being explained to Australians, leaving us unable to make sensible evaluations about the current situation. Is, for example, China continuing with its previous attempts to penetrate cyber networks that have no apparent link to traditional espionage, such as hacking into our university systems, or has this now stopped? Are our politicians pulling on the strings of Beijing as bogeyman to explain away genuine international concerns that our great natural wonder, the Great Barrier Reef, is in imminent peril?
The answer to the latter question - almost certainly yes - indicates the ridiculously amateur level of debate that's flourishing in the absence of information. We need bureaucrats who are not just highly knowledgeable, but ones who can cut through the barriers and imagine new ways of moving forward. It's no use being right if you still lose the war.
- Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer and a regular columnist.