Australia-China Huang Xiangmo Chinese lobbyist blocked communist party
(Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

One of Australia’s best-credentialed China diplomats Graham Fletcher has been appointed as Australia’s new ambassador to China in part of what is being described as a major China “reset”.

Along with Fletcher’s appointment, the government has unveiled a plan to provide $44 million to the newly formed National Foundation for Australia-China Relations. The foundation will replace the Australia-China Council but retain its head Warwick Smith, former Howard government minister and Macquarie Bank and Seven West executive.

It’s the second China reset that the Morrison government has claimed during its five-month tenure, following claims of a similar reset that occurred during September and October last year.

The process was started by Morrison’s predecessor Malcolm Turnbull and seemingly appeared to reach resolution in November when Payne became the first Australian Foreign Minister to visit China in three years. But clearly that wasn’t the end of things. 

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Since earlier this year, Beijing has once more been piling the pressure on Canberra — this time for the federal government’s decision to ban Chinese telecommunications group Huawei Technology from any role in the 5G mobile phone and data networks being rolled out around Australia.

The latest wave of pushback from Beijing began in January with the arrest of Chinese-Australian author Yang Hengjun, and then with bans on coal imports and the threat of hefty tariffs on Australia’s multi-million dollar barley export industry, whose biggest customer is China.

At least two Chinese ports have blocked Australian coal exports in recent months and the country is reportedly favouring lower-grade Indonesian coal.

It’s clear that the brief for Fletcher — who is the very embodiment of the risk averse, cautious diplomat much in the model of his boss, Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs Frances Adamson — is to improve relations with Beijing without giving the Chinese government the one thing it really wants: a revocation of the Huawei ban, as well as a ceasing of Australia’s promotion of the Huawei ban to its allies.

Fletcher’s appointment, which begins in June, has seen incumbent Jan Adams’ term cut short by about six months. Adams is a career trade negotiator who oversaw the Australia China Free Trade Agreement along with similar deals with Japan and South Korea.

While Fletcher’s appointment is an uncontroversial and apolitical one, and will doubtless have bipartisan support, it is also an appointment that did not need to be made until after the federal election. Rather than being deliberately preemptory — in the way that, say, Australia Post board appointments will be — its an indication of just how concerned the government is about the current frisson with Australia’s largest trading partner.

Adams held the role in increasingly trying circumstances. During her tenure, Bishop was famously carpeted by China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi over comments she made about China’s no-fly zone over the South China Sea. Bishop got into further hot water with China when she questioned the country’s political model at a high profile speech in Singapore in 2017.

Just as China was digesting all this, the Huawei ban came along with reports that Australia was working with the US to try and convince Canada, New Zealand and the UK to take a similar path.

“Beijing’s block on canola from Canada and coal from Australia simply confirms the wisdom of blocking Huawei,” Professor John Fitzgerald, an expert on Chinese influence, told Crikey. “We are not dealing with a normal market player. China’s government leverages the asymmetry of bilateral economic relations to coerce other governments into doing its bidding on any and everything.”

Crikey understands that Mandarin-fluent Fletcher was in consideration for the Beijing post both in 2012 when Frances Adamson was selected, and in 2015 when Adams was named for the job.

Fletcher joined DFAT in 1983. He served a period as lead negotiator for the China-Australia FTA and has also served in diplomatic posts in Noumea and Washington. In recent years Fletcher has been the DFAT deputy secretary heading the North Asia Division. He has been a familiar face on visits to China by foreign ministers Stephen Smith, Kevin Rudd, Bob Carr and Bishop as well as on prime ministerial trips.

Still, while Fletcher’s appointment should be welcomed, the Morrison government flinging out $44 million for an Australia-China foundation in an effort to improve relations seems to be missing the point.

It’s going to take more than some well-meaning cash to paper over the fact that the Australian government remains without an overarching policy on China — one able to deal with an authoritarian regime that ruthlessly uses both human and trade leverage to get its way.