Frances Adamson – Ambassador to China

Australia’s new ambassador to China shares her views on the Australia China relationship three months into the job. She spoke to Sophie Loras.


Frances Adamson has served in Hong Kong and as a Representative of the Australian Commerce and Industry Office in Taiwan, as Deputy High Commissioner in the UK and was most recently, Chief of Staff to Stephen Smith in his capacity as both as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Defence. But speak to the career diplomat about her current role as Australia’s 12th Ambassador to China and there is nowhere else Frances Adamson would rather be.

“There is something very special about being China in 2011, in the capital of our largest trading partner, the capital of the world’s second largest economic entity and most populous nation,” says Ms Adamson.

“I love every single day of it – as an adult it is often rarely the case that you feel almost, sort of excited as you might have remembered when you were younger, but I feel that everyday in this job – I seriously do.”

The role hasn’t been short of its challenges. Within her first week as Ambassador at the beginning of August the Australian government was busy preparing its response to the tightly restricted court case of Australian businessman Matthew Ng in Guangzhou. In a very different scene from Rio Tinto’s Stern Hu case in 2009, the Australian government successfully petitioned the Chinese government to open the courtroom to some Australian media and members of Mr Ng’s family.

“There will always be – particularly in a relationship where our histories are quite different, our values are different and our political systems are different – differences which arise from time to time,” says Ms Adamson.

“I think it is important that both sides are actually prepared to acknowledge that.”

Ms Adamson is the first woman to hold the post but says her gender holds little significance to the way she conducts her work in China.

“The Chinese often politely notice it. And I think that’s their way of welcoming me,” says Ms Adamson.

She is quick to point out the high profile Chinese diplomat, Madame Fu Ying, China’s current Vice Foreign Minister and a former Ambassador to Australia and the United Kingdom.

“In a way we are not doing anything that they [the Chinese] haven’t already done. But of course in Australia’s diplomatic history… we’ve had some outstanding female heads of mission and I’m very pleased to be following in the footsteps of some of those.”

The Australia China Relationship

With a background in economics (Ms Adamson holds a Bachelor of Economics from the University of Adelaide) and strong Mandarin language skills, the new Ambassador shows a real passion for Australian business in China, wasting no time in the lead up to her arrival in Beijing to speak to state and territory leaders, Australian business people with key interests in China as well as every former (and current) Australian prime minister since Gough Whitlam about the state of the Australia-China relationship.

“Like all of my predecessor I want to make every day count and there is a just a huge amount going on in the relationship,” she says.

“Everyone I met in Australia before coming up… said it’s a big job – and it is a big job – but I have a fantastic team here at the embassy.”

Ms Adamson has made it a poignant objective to meet with as many Australians as possible to gauge the greater issues for the relationship.

“Seeing Australians doing so well here is something I feel very very enthusiastic about. Whether it is Australian architects designing significant buildings in China, whether it is Australian winemakers working with Chinese winemakers or Australian abalone farmers working with Chinese business partners to develop supply chains… Whether it is scientists working on joint publications.”

Diversifying beyond resources

China is Australia’s largest trading partner, and Australia is China’s 7th largest trading partner – no mean feat, Ms Adamson points out for a country of just 22 million people. Two-way trade between the two countries was worth A$105 billion dollars last year.

But a key challenge for Ms Adamson will be steering the relationship to new areas – beyond resources and into more diverse sectors.

“We want to build on our reputation as a reliable and long-term supplier of natural resources but there is much more we are capable of too… so its diversifying that trade and investment relationship in areas such as clean energy, agri-business, autos and transport – that’s really the next phase of our economic cooperation.”

The services sector is also a key area for advancement – especially in areas such as financial services, education and tourism.

“We are putting a lot of emphasis on services industries too, because that is something the Chinese have flagged in their 12- five year plan – the development of their domestic market and although there are still a number of barriers to entry, we think never the less, there are important opportunities in the second and third tier cities,” Ms Adamson says.

Then there is the importance of people-to-people relationships. Government figures show more than 120,000 Chinese students were studying in Australia last year and that Chinese people made around 450,000 visits to Australia in the last twelve months for a range of reasons including tourism and short, business-related visits.


For Australia’s international education sector Ms Adamson says Australian education services providers she has spoken to remain confident about the outlook.

“What they tell me is that our competitors have become even more competitive and the strength of the Australian dollar has been a concern for them. But yet all have them have been very positive about the way the relationship is developing.”

“The Knight review – I’m confident will provide a substantial platform to for us to continue to grow this education relationship but to grow it in durable ways that work for both countries.”

The other challenge for Australia is remaining on the front-foot in its engagement with China as the country reaches out more globally.

“I think we are fortunate that we’ve got large numbers of Chinese going to Australia and Australians coming to China because they are people who have very up to date knowledge about each other’s countries.”

Second and third tier cities

Ms Adamson says Australian misconceptions about China revolve around a lack of understanding of the potential for China’s second and third tier cities, as they continue to gravitate towards Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong.

“But I think there is another China out there in the second and third tier cities and we always encourage our visitors, no matter who they are, we encourage them to go further afield and to develop a greater understanding of contemporary China in some of the smaller cities.”

Ms Adamson says that as the rest of the world continues to experience economic difficulties and the global economic crisis hangover in Europe and the US, it “reminds us that our economic relationship is a vibrant one and we need to do everything to nurture and extend it. And capitalise on the benefits of it.”


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