There is growing talk in diplomatic and business circles that the Abbott government is considering making the first political appointment of an ambassador to China since Bob Hawke sent Ross Garnaut to Beijing in 1985.

The job is up next August when incumbent Frances Adamson — the first woman to hold the post — completes her term.

Planning for a new envoy could be tricky given the new low in relations between China and Australia. The central cause is Abbott’s overt and public embrace of China’s No. 1 enemy, Japan, as key regional security partner — a step many observers say went too far. China is now determined, insiders say, to have its revenge on Australia by way of death by a thousand cuts.

The first very public one of these cuts was the sudden reimposition of tariffs on offshore coal imports. Australia, the second biggest coal exporter to China, will suffer the most.

The new ambassador’s resilience — as Beijing extracts its revenge, piece by piece — will be sorely tested in a plum posting regarded as second only to Washington in Australia’s closely guarded diplomatic pantheon.

There’s a strong argument for selecting a candidate from outside the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, as is often the case with Washington appointments. Leading current betting is former Liberal Party apparatchik Marcus L’Estrange.

Another frontrunner is former Howard-government minister and longtime Macquarie banker Warwick Smith, who now holds two China-focused key advisory roles to Kerry Stokes’ private company Australian Capital Equity. But some are concerned by his failure to pick up the post when Howard opted against sending a political appointee to the Chinese capital in 2007, with the relationship running smoothly by then, after a rocky start.

Howard handed the job to Geoff Raby, Adamson’s predecessor, a man unafraid to wear his Labor sympathies on his sleeve. He remains close to Bob Hawke and Paul Keating but with the ascension of his bete noire, Kevin Rudd, he shifted with the effortless ease of a veteran diplomat and security official to neutral ground.

Leading the internal DFAT pack is Graeme Fletcher, who has held the deputy’s post in Beijing. He is now Kim Beazley’s No. 2 in Washington — credentials his supporters see as close to iron-clad as possible in the fluid world of diplomatic machinations. The other main contender is first assistant secretary of DFAT’s north Asia division Peter Rowe.

L’Estrange was high commissioner to the United Kingdom and was appointed the DFAT Secretary General’s role in 2005 by then-prime minister John Howard after Howard’s US ambassador Michael Thawley, the prime diplomatic mover behind Australia’s entry into George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion, declined.

“While former PM Kevin Rudd, himself a very good Chinese speaker, had an obsessive preference for diplomats in senior posts being able to speak the language, Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop and Abbott so far have found no such need.”

Like Abbott, L’Estrange is an alumnus of Sydney’s Jesuit Aloysius College and is part of the Prime Minister’s Catholic mafia, which includes a raft of cabinet ministers such as Joe Hockey, Andrew Robb, Chris Pyne, Kevin Andrews and Mathias Cormann. (L’Estrange was contacted for comment but did not respond before deadline.)

Australia has long history of jobs for the boys — and occasionally the girls (Amanda Vanstone, Rome) — but they have generally been confined to Europe (especially the UK) and North America (especially the United States). Apart from Washington and Brussels, which are serious jobs, most of them are places where people “can have a good time”, as one former diplomat put it. Asia, the region that matters most to Australia (and that our politicians know and seem to care about least) appears to be sought after by ex-pollies, underscoring a remarkable, continuing and disturbing lack of curiosity about the neighbours who provide our economic ballast.

There is little doubt that DFAT would be fighting for one of their own Chinese-speaking diplomats. Yet while former PM Kevin Rudd, himself a very good Chinese speaker, had an obsessive preference for diplomats in senior posts being able to speak the language, Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop and Abbott so far have found no such need.

As Raby noted towards the end of his term, in a barb aimed squarely at Rudd — they both served under Garnaut in Beijing and little love has ever been lost — “To speak Chinese is not to know China.”

Bishop recently used her growing heft inside the party, garnered by her tireless working of crucial party room support and strong performance in voter polls, to quash a proposed homeland security super ministry. The move dealt a blow to the empire-building aspirations of boat-stopping and Cambodia-embracing Immigration supremo Scott Morrison.

Like Rudd, Abbott has created a second sphere of foreign affairs influence within the rigidly disciplined Prime Minister’s Office — run by his famously controlling chief staff Peta Credlin and national security adviser Andrew Shearer — which has seized total control of ministerial office information flows, including from DFAT. Background has been radically limited, written briefings and answers to even uncontroversial questions have been perfunctory, in keeping with the secretive attitude of the Abbott government.

Perhaps it’s stretching an analogy to its limit, but the backroom battle for the keys to the ambassador’s residence in the embassy might be the first battle in the war to replace Abbott as Liberal Party chief — and depending upon the timing — Prime Minister.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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