The ‘anti-Pezzullo’: AUKUS veteran tipped for China ambassador

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A veteran public servant who played a key role in the development of the AUKUS defence pact and the Quad security dialogue is a frontrunner to be appointed to one of the country’s most significant and challenging diplomatic postings: ambassador to China.

Two sources within the foreign policy community said Scott Dewar, currently serving as a senior foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, is widely expected to fill the role when current ambassador Graham Fletcher returns to Australia from Beijing in the coming months.

Scott Dewar, who served as a diplomat in Beijing from 2003 to 2007, is highly regarded for his Mandarin language skills.

Underlining the fraught task the next ambassador will face in Beijing, China’s ambassador to Australia on Thursday warned Australian politicians – including former prime minister Scott Morrison – against travelling to Taiwan, arguing that doing so could undermine Australia-China relations and fuel separatist sentiment on the self-governing island.

A delegation of Australian politicians from across the political spectrum is currently visiting Taiwan, and Morrison is scheduled to give a speech there in early October.

“Politicians need to respect the fact that Taiwan is part of China,” ambassador Xiao Qian said at an event in Sydney.

But in the latest sign of a thaw in trade tensions ahead of a visit by Albanese to China this year, Trade Minister Don Farrell on Thursday announced that China had lifted barriers on imported Australian hay.

“This is another positive step forward, but there is more work to do,” Farrell said, noting Chinese restrictions remained on imports of Australian beef, lobster and wine.

“I will continue to persevere and press for all outstanding impediments to be removed as soon as possible.”

If Dewar takes up the role in Beijing, he would be swapping jobs with Fletcher, who would fill Dewar’s current position of deputy secretary (international and security) in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet next February.

Staff in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade were recently informed that Dewar would move into an unspecified senior role in the department on October 1, fuelling speculation about his future.

Chinese Ambassador Xiao Qian, speaking at a China National Day event in Sydney, warned Australian politicians against visiting Taiwan. Credit: Louie Douvis

“I would be very surprised if it wasn’t Scott,” one well-placed foreign policy source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said of the Beijing posting.

The source described Dewar as the “anti-Pezzullo”, saying he was notable for “lacking hubris”.

Text messages published this week by this masthead showed Home Affairs secretary Michael Pezzullo pushing for a Liberal Party right-wing minister to be appointed to the merged portfolio, as well as denigrating his senior public service colleagues and journalists.

Pezzullo, who stood aside from his job while his conduct is investigated, drew criticism for venturing beyond his remit in 2021 when he declared in a message to Home Affairs staff that the “drums of war” were again beating in Australia’s region.

A spokesperson from Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s office declined to comment on who would fill the Beijing role or when an announcement would be made.

Dewar, who served as a diplomat in Beijing from 2003 to 2007, is highly regarded for his Mandarin language skills.

As well as serving as Australia’s consul-general in Honolulu and leading the Defence Department’s Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation, Dewar previously served as deputy secretary for the Quad, AUKUS and naval shipbuilding within PM&C.

In this role, Dewar served as Albanese’s “sherpa” – or personal envoy – to the Quad, a grouping of the United States, Japan, India and Australia that Beijing has railed against as an exclusive “clique” intended to constrain China’s global influence.

Dewar travelled to Washington in 2021 for secret meetings with senior White House officials in the month before the AUKUS pact with the United States and United Kingdom, including Australia’s plan to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, was announced.

He previously served as a foreign policy and national security adviser to Kevin Rudd, helping the then-prime minister translate speeches into Mandarin on a 2008 trip to China.

He later served as acting chief-of-staff to the Coalition’s then-defence minister, Linda Reynolds, underlining the respect with which he is held on both sides of politics.

Xiao’s comments on Thursday contrast with recent remarks by Taiwan’s chief representative in Australia, Douglas Hsu, who urged Australian officials not to be “lazy” by submitting to Beijing’s claim that they should limit interactions with Taiwan.

“You have to keep in mind that since the establishment of the [People’s Republic of China], there is not one day, one hour, one minute, one second when the PRC has had jurisdiction over Taiwan,” Hsu told this masthead in an interview.

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