Australia’s first ambassador to modern China, Stephen FitzGerald could not have picked a more apposite time to release his memoir Comrade Ambassador: Whitlam’s Beijing Envoy, which was launched at the Australian National University last Friday evening.

One of the items near the top of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s in-tray is the approval of the appointment of Jan Adams, a Department of Foreign Affairs deputy secretary, as Australia’s latest Beijing envoy. It is widely expected that the appointment will be rubber-stamped, as Adams has the backing of Turnbull’s deputy and Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop and Trade Minister Andrew Robb.

Adams has a strong background in trade, having worked at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and had a senior job in Australia’s Washington embassy, and her appointment will further burnish the government’s trade credentials. Many have argued that Kevin Rudd’s failure to appoint deputy secretaries to the key envoy jobs in China and Japan made things difficult, as much of an ambassador’s job is about negotiating with Canberra as much as Beijing or Tokyo.

But Adams will have more on her plate than just trade, with Turnbull early out of the blocks on regional security with strong comments on ABC’s 730 last night, squarely targeting China, which has been engaging in aggressive land reclamation in the South China Sea where seven nations have various and often overlapping territorial claims.

“The pushing the envelope in the South China Sea has had the consequence of exactly the reverse consequence of what China would seek to achieve,” Turnbull said.

“My own view and the government’s view is that China would be better advised, in its own interests frankly, not to be pushing the envelope there and that is why there’s been resistance against that activity.”

Turnbull had already made it clear that he intends to ratify the China trade deal as soon as he can, drawing an early battle line with the Labor Party over the deal. He chose it as the centrepiece of his critique of Labor Leader Bill Shorten in his pitch for the Liberal leadership and Prime Minister’s job when he fronted the cameras at 4pm on September 14.

“If we continue with Abbott as prime minister, it is clear enough what will happen: he will cease to be PM and he will be succeeded by Shorten. You only have to see the catastrophically reckless approach of Shorten to ChAFTA to know he ‘s utterly unfit to be prime minister of this country,” Turnbull said.

The optics, as the buzzword crowd likes to say, of Adams’ gender are also excellent from a man who has talked up his desire to see more women appointed to top government jobs both inside and outside politics. Adams is due to start in December and will replace Frances Adamson, the first woman to hold the job, who will have been in the job for four and a half years.

In her latest role Adams, who has widespread respect in the bureaucracy, has overseen the trifecta of free trade agreements with China, Japan and South Korea — Australia’s No. 1, 2 and 4 export destinations — and has set negotiations in train for similar agreements with India and Indonesia.

On August 17, Adams fronted the parliamentary Joint Committee on Treaties with a statement outlining the benefits of the deal and hosing down the politically inspired, racially tinged fear mongering by the opposition about a flood of Chinese workers, a campaign that could blow up in Bill Shorten’s face.

“As has been pointed out through many industry submissions, this makes a very big difference to many sectors in the Australian economy, many of them regional-based,” Adams told the committee.

The government is already amping up the heat on Labor on this; last week it moved to have ChAFTA ratified by Parliament after Andrew Robb introduced the bill. The treaties committee will present its report on October 12 after which the FTA will be debated.

Turnbull has made it clear that trade will continue to be at the centre of the government’s agenda, and Robb, who was one of Tony Abbott’s best-performing ministers, has retained the portfolio (in addition to be good he and Turnbull were comrades in the Australian Republic Movement.) At the weekend, he took off to Indonesia to lay the groundwork for a trade delegation he will lead in November.

Unlike Australia’s other major trading partners — China, Japan, US, South Korea and Singapore  — Indonesia is a resources-exporting economy that competes with Australia in mining, especially in coal. Despite being the largest economy in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, it only ranks No. 11 in terms of two-way trade with Australia, below other large regional economies, such as Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. It also has protectionist instincts in terms of resources and agriculture,  so this deal — like everything else with Indonesia — is sure to prove more difficult than with others.

The other large piece of trade policy that is underway is an FTA with India. If Robb can lock both that and Indonesia up, Turnbull will have a very strong story to take to next year’s election.

Trade aside, Turnbull faces some challenges in foreign affairs, which has been far too Middle East focused since Tony Abbott symbolically visited Jakarta as his first overseas trip and promised “more Jakarta than Geneva”. Since then, the relationship with Indonesia has plumbed fresh depths, and any non-trade engagement with Asia — save Julie Bishop’s new Colombo plan — has been limited, and Australia has slashed aid to most of our neighbours (except countries that take our refugees) by about 50%. This has hardly strengthened Australia’s position in the region.

In his book, FitzGerald, who was only 37 when Whitlam dispatched him to present his credentials to Chinese leader Mao Zedong in 1973, presents sharp, sometimes withering criticism of Australia’s foreign policy since the end of the Hawke-Keating era.

He argues that a lack of strong leadership on foreign affairs since John Howard has caused Australia to lose focus and understanding of Asia. Perhaps under Asia-savvy Turnbull this will return.

Adams’ appointment is one of three plum diplomatic posts Turnbull can fill in the next six months, enabling him to put his own stamp on Australia’s foreign policy. The others are Japan ambassador Bruce Miller and American ambassador Kim Beazley who has been in the job since 2010.

The US has long been used to helping solve political puzzles on both sides of politics. John Howard sent his nemesis Andrew Peacock to Washington, and Julia Gillard dispatched Kim Beazley. If press reports are to be believed, Turnbull will follow suit by dispatching Joe Hockey once he resigns from Parliament. Hockey’s inexperience will mean that the No. 2 job there will be key.

Japan is a little easier and will likely fall, as it has tended to in recent decades, to an experienced senior DFAT official, but the situation in the world’s No. 3 economy and the US’ major ally in the region became a lot a whole lot more interesting on the weekend when the country’s parliament passed unpopular bills that will allow Japanese forces to serve overseas for the first time since World War II. This officially marks a rearming of Japan, which has been underway for some time.

“The withering of Japan’s security environment is a function of the insecurity generated by its own economic decline [rather than China’s rise] and its discomfiture in striking up a mutually beneficial political equation with Beijing,” Sourabh Gupta from Samuels International wrote on ANU’s East Asia Forum at the weekend.

This dramatic change, alongside the rapid modernisation of China’s military and its continued aggression in the South China Sea promises to pose some thorny questions for Turnbull as the Defence Department prepares to release its white paper under Australia’s first female Defence Minister Marise Payne later this year. Just how much Turnbull and his team will change the document will prove very revealing.

Peter Fray

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