Who will be our man in Beijing?
Australian Ambassador to Japan, Murray McLean OAM, caught up with Thom Woodroofe at APEC this week and discussed the prospect of him moving to be our man in Beijing, and the behaviour of the Chinese at Copenhagen last year .
Reports in the Australian Financial Review last weekend suggested that Murray McLean is on the shortlist to be our head diplomat in Beijing.
While the job has been advertised internally in DFAT, the mandarin speaking Ambassador humbly brushed off the suggestion he was being considered for the shift to China. He says he will go “wherever the government wants him to go” when his term expires “sometime in 2011”, but he may be asked to pack his bags for Beijing before then.
Ambassador McLean has been our main man in Tokyo for almost six years now, a lengthy appointment by any measure. But his CV oozes China.
His first posting was to Hong Kong in 1971 before shifting over to Beijing for three years in 1973. After three years away he returned to Beijing as Counsellor for four years before a stint as the Consul-General in Shanghai from 1987-92.
After eighteen years away he is no doubt eager to get back.
Australia’s current Ambassador to China, Dr. Geoff Raby, is due to finish his current four year term in February. While it is possible his tenure may be extended, it is unlikely.
Dr. Raby has done well during a turbulent period that many expected to be more cordial when the first mandarin speaking Prime Minister was in office. But he is not an extensive mandarin speaker and his experience is mostly in Europe and working with international organisations.
Our Ambassador to South Korea Sam Gerovich is also likely to be considered for the role. The mandarin speaker has been posted to Beijing three times before which puts him in good stead for the role. But only two years into his current term, and with previous experience as our highest representative in Taiwan it would seem unlikely.
Stephen Smith’s former Chief of Staff and our old Deputy High Commissioner in London, Frances Adamson, have also been widely suggested. Adamson’s time in Taipei also risks upsetting Beijing at a delicate time in our relationship. But more importantly, Kevin Rudd must ultimately sign off on the appointment – and as we saw with Hugh Borrowman and Germany - he will no doubt pay an unhealthy interest given his own China background and the politics of the personality of someone in the Smith camp.
If Ambassador McLean prevails he will no doubt have a fresh and pragmatic approach.
In an hour long meeting on Monday it was China’s behaviour, not our relationship with Japan that dominated the discussions.
Describing Copenhagen as a key moment in world history McLean said “China behaved abysmally” and focussed heavily on the widely reported standing up of President Obama by Premier Wen Jiabo, calling it “immensely arrogant”.
McLean was more reserved to speak on recent disputes between China and Japan over islands in the South China Sea saying it was simply “a matter for the claimants concerned” but that broadly charactering China’s behaviour as “injudicious”.
Whoever prevails there is no doubt Beijing has become a plum post alongside Washington and London. Rightly so, as the AFR piece quotes a source close to the Department saying: “We often look beyond the foreign service to ex-pollies in these kinds of posts”.
One widely circulating rumour within the Department several months ago was that current Trade Minister Simon Crean was jostling for the role as an exit strategy from politics.
Ambassador McLean described the suggestion as “rubbish”.
Which doesn’t leave many men standing.
Thom Woodroofe is the leader of the Australian Youth Delegation to APEC. He is a frequent commentator on international affairs and an Associate Fellow of The Asia Society based in New York.
Follow his activities at APEC on Twitter @thomwoodroofe
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