Former Australian ambassador to Beijing: China plagued by unease and driven by ambition

China is driven by a “volatile mix” of power and insecurity, and the prospect of a short-term transformation is non-existent, Frances Adamson, the outgoing Australian Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, said in a speech to the National Press Club of Australia on June 23. She warned that Australia “needs to know what kind of problems we are dealing with.

Sun Fang’an, 60, a 36-year diplomat, will step down from that post on Friday and will replace Hieu Van Le, South Australia’s current governor general, as the next governor general of South Australia from October. Prior to assuming the role of Deputy Permanent Secretary for Foreign Affairs and Trade from 2016, Sun Fang’an served as Australian Ambassador to China from 2011-2015. In recent years, she was responsible for participating in the writing of key documents such as the 2017 Australian Foreign Policy White Paper.

According to the ABC, Sun Fang’an gave her views on Australia-China relations in her final public speech as permanent deputy minister for trade. She told the National Press Club of Australia that “there is no challenge that demonstrates the need for active, creative diplomacy more than China.” She noted that China represents the single most influential variable in Australia’s external environment. She said, “I have witnessed China’s growth and change from three different vantage points, from Hong Kong in the late 1980s, from our economic and trade office in Taipei in the early 2000s, and as ambassador to Beijing from 2011 to 2015.”

Sun Fang’an says, “This experience helped me understand the history, culture, politics; and most importantly how internal dynamics and real and perceived vulnerabilities affect the choices China makes and the way it sees the world.” In her view, “[China] has turned back the clock in terms of prioritizing ideology, silencing the voices of civil society, and erecting new barriers to external connections and the free flow of information. China talks about a ‘new type of international relations’ as if this is a fairer way, an improvement. But behind this is the same power politics, a primitive assertion of national interests.” The implication, she said, “is that China’s size and power make its interests more ‘special’ than those of other countries, and that those interests must prevail.”

Sun Fang’an said, “Few people really understand that [China] is a great power still plagued by insecurity, as much as it is driven by ambition. It has a deeply defensive mindset: it feels externally threatened even when it puts its own interests above those of others. It is too willing to suspect ‘containment’ rather than judge issues on their respective merits.” She added, “And I always find that in the face of intense official pronouncements, the pressure to remind oneself of outward pressure on other countries must also be felt internally, at the individual level, by those who are subject to the system.”

Sun Fang’an spoke of how “insecurity and power can be a volatile combination; if not handled carefully, they can be even more destabilizing. We need to understand the issues we are dealing with.” She said, “As you know, the number of Western journalists in China is declining. There is a long tradition of insights from (foreign) journalists who have covered China in the past, including Australians, going back to the Republican era and the present, enriching our understanding. This understanding contributes to a closer bilateral relationship that is in the interest of both sides. “It is certainly one of the saddest ironies,” she asserts, “that those media voices stationed on the ground give us an insight into the dynamism and complexity of China. Less contact, less dialogue means less understanding.”

Sun Fang’an said, “This mentality of being under siege; this unwillingness to be scrutinized and to really discuss differences is not in anyone’s interest. It means, among other things, that China’s influence in Australia and many other countries is declining dramatically.” She stated, “The latest Lowy poll released today confirms this, showing that Australians’ trust in China has fallen to an all-time low. What we are telling the Chinese government is that we are not interested in promoting containment or regime change.” She added, “For the common good, we want to understand and respond carefully. Not to foster its insecurities or follow a spiral of miscalculation. Nor do we see the world through the simplistic lens of zero-sum competition.”

Sun Fang’an said, “What we are interested in, and will continue to work for, is a peaceful, secure region based on a commitment to the rules that already serve us all, including China. An order that will provide more stability and well-being for its members, as it has done so far.” In her speech, she suggested that “we have a strong policy framework to govern our approach to China, and rightly so, we test that framework constantly. It is partly defensive, yes, because China’s actions require such a response.” But it is also proactive, she asserts, “and open to a possible model of beneficial coexistence that prevents conflict and protects Australia’s sovereignty while recognizing that China will inevitably have a greater say in the way our world works. “

China may want Australia to fundamentally rethink policy, as the pressure we are under suggests, but that hope is in denial of the very real impact of China’s actions on Australia and, importantly, the broad bipartisanship that exists in our most basic policy settings,” said Sun Fang’an. So we approach China with confidence, realism and an open mind.” The report said Sun Fang’an also addressed the incident of the list of 14 grievances that the Chinese Embassy in Australia presented to the Australian side last year.

Sun Fang’an said she believed the move was counterproductive, as highlighted by the reaction of world leaders at the G-7 leaders’ meeting in Cornwall this month. Earlier, it was reported that Australian Prime Minister Morrison had specifically addressed the list to the G-7 and invited leaders at the meeting. Sun Fang’an said, “That was a big self-serving statement by China that no Australian government, no elected government anywhere in the world, can say these things are important.” She said, “I don’t understand why they’re doing this, and I don’t know if they themselves really understand what they’re actually doing.”