Career diplomat Frances Adamson, presently international adviser to Malcolm Turnbull, will be the new secretary of the Foreign Affairs department.
She replaces Peter Varghese, who has already left the post, and will be the first woman to head the department.
Adamson, who speaks Mandarin and is highly regarded in diplomatic circles, was Australian ambassador to China in 2011-15.
She earlier served in the Australian consulate-general in Hong Kong, as representative to the Australian Commerce and Industry Office in Taipei, and in the Australian High Commission in London.
She was chief-of-staff to Labor’s Stephen Smith when he was foreign minister and then defence minister.
Announcing her appointment, Turnbull said Adamson “has had a distinguished career as a diplomat and brings a depth of experience and understanding of international affairs to this position”.