The Morrison Government has announced a new $44 million foundation to “turbo charge” Australia’s engagement with China at the same time that it has appointed a fluent Mandarin speaker as its new ambassador to Beijing.
- The National Foundation for Australia-China Relations will replace the Australia-China Council
- Australia’s new ambassador to China, Graham Fletcher, has served three postings in China
- The Labor Party said they weren’t consulted about Mr Fletcher’s appointment
The moves come amid growing tensions between the two countries over the ban on Chinese telecom Huawei supplying equipment to Australia’s 5G network, foreign interference laws and the South China Sea.
They also come on the heels of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen urging Australia, the United States and Japan to unite with her country in a push back against China in the Pacific on the last day of her Pacific trip on Thursday.
Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne said the new National Foundation for Australia-China Relations would harness efforts of the private sector, non-government and cultural organisations, state and federal agencies and the Chinese-Australian community “to turbo charge our national effort in engaging China”.
The newly appointed Australian ambassador to China, Graham Fletcher, is also a top China specialist who has served three postings in China as an Australian diplomat and is fluent in Mandarin.
Mr Fletcher, currently the head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s north Asia division, will replace outgoing ambassador Jan Adams, who has been in the post since 2016.
While the Labor Party supports the appointment of Mr Fletcher, who is widely respected in Canberra, they expressed dismay at not having been consulted about the decision.
“Labor is supportive of the choice, but given proximity to the election it would have been appropriate for the Government to consult the Opposition,” a spokesperson for Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong said.
“Given the importance of the relationship, that would have been the responsible thing to do.”
Engaging China on Australian terms is ‘the right thing’
Meanwhile, the $44 million foundation is set to replace the Australia-China Council — which has promoted ties between Canberra and Beijing over the past 40 years — but will still be led by the current chair of the council, Warwick Smith.
Ms Payne said the new foundation would build on the work of the council, which focused on education, culture and the arts.
With substantially increased funding, the body will also promote areas like agriculture, infrastructure, health and ageing, and the environment and energy.
“There are many areas where Australia and China share common objectives and where we can maximise mutual cooperation to the benefit of both countries,” Ms Payne said in a statement.
“We have different perspectives on some important issues and the new foundation will encourage and enable considerable constructive discourse and engagement between our two countries.”
Rory Medcalf, the head of the National Security College at ANU, said the new moves suggested Canberra was heading in the right direction.
“These are welcome moves,” he wrote on Twitter.
“An Australian Government-funded foundation to understand and engage China — with an Australian perspective, on Australian terms — is the right thing.
“It does not detract from recent moves to protect the national interest, but complements them.”