“Insecurity and power can be a volatile combination, more so if inadvertently mishandled,” Frances Adamson told the National Press Club on Wednesday.
Adelaide born and educated Adamson will take up the role of SA Governor in October, after five years heading DFAT and a long career as a diplomat and adviser.
An international advisor to former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, she served as Australian ambassador to China from 2011-2015, and had also held postings in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and served twice in the Australian High Commission in London, including as Deputy High Commissioner from 2005-08.
She had also served as chief of staff to Foreign Affairs and Defence Ministers from 2009-10.
Adamson said China speaks about a new way of international relations as if it is fairer, but it remains pure power politics.
“Few really grasp that this great power is still dogged by insecurity as much as driven by ambition,” she said.
“That it has a deeply defensive mindset, perceiving external threats even as it pushes its interests over those of others.
“It is too ready to suspect containment instead of judging issues on their individual merits.”
The speech came as a new Lowy Institute poll showed more than 60 per cent of Australians see Beijing as an increasing security threat, responding negatively to Chinese investment in Australia and Chinese environmental policies, governance and military activity.
The annual poll of more than 2200 Australians found 16 per cent of respondents trusted China “a great deal” or “somewhat” in its international conduct – almost 40 percentage points lower than in 2018.
Some 63 per cent of respondents said they now see China as “more of a security threat” to Australia than an economic partner, while more than half said Australia-China relations pose a critical national security threat.
Beijing has in the past 12 months launched a series of damaging trade strikes against Australia after Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
These include bans and tariffs on exports including coal, grain and seafood.
China also remains angry with Australia over foreign interference and investment laws and the decision to ban Huawei from the country’s 5G rollout.
Adamson, a former ambassador to China, said Australia’s interests will be served by “a regional balance that favours freedom”.
She said the West’s advantage in economic and military power is ebbing, and the international order is being remade.
How Australia responds to China, climate change, evolving international organisations will be key.
“Astute diplomacy and adhering to a rules-based approach” will help to navigate a more disorderly world, she said.
“Our alliance with the United States remains fundamental.”
Working in clear-eyed collaboration with countries with different views also matters, particularly in Asia, and she named China as the country most needing Australia’s “active diplomacy”.
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