An op-ed by Professor Rory Medcalf, Head of the ANU National Security College and author of Contest for the Indo-Pacific
16 November 2021
For those who respect his achievements, Paul Keating’s latest sermon on the supposed error of Australia’s strategic ways was more saddening than maddening.
Do we need a standard of national conversation on strategic choices to match the danger and disorder of our worsening international security environment?
Absolutely. But this wasn’t it.
The former prime minister’s question-and-very-long-answer session last week with National Press Club journalists has been exalted by some as a withering attack on government and opposition alike, a taste of the rich foreign policy debate the nation needs.
Rich indeed it was – but more in distortion and omission than in contemporary and open-minded analysis.
Presumably Keating’s reason for exposing the full stopped-clock dogma of his worldview is because the issues are so profoundly serious.
In his own words, he was intervening because the recent AUKUS submarine technology deal with the United States and the United Kingdom showed the country was ‘at odds with its geography’ and had ‘lost its way’.
Yet his main solution – just respect China – is misguided and misguiding.
For a start, to say our nation is in trouble because we’ve somehow denied the ‘validity’ of China’s rise is a strawman. Respecting what China’s people have achieved in economic development has been a staple of Australian policy and public consciousness for decades.
It’s just that any sovereign nation would require the respect to be mutual – which is why the Coalition and Labor are likeminded in resisting economic bullying and countering foreign interference.
The problem is not China’s wealth and achievement, but the many coercive ways Xi Jinping is using that power to challenge the interests and values of so many others, right across our multipolar region of the Indo-Pacific.
Like China, Keating dismissed as ‘fiction’ the Indo-Pacific strategic framework that Australian diplomacy has pioneered since 2013 – even though such partners as ASEAN, India, Japan, America and the EU have since adopted it.
Piquantly, he thus puts himself at odds with our geography, rejecting the obvious point that our interests are engaged in a region of competition and connectivity spanning more than one ocean.
Keating was ominously silent on what is actually happening on the ground and in the water, the realities that form the backdrop to this week’s summit between Xi and Biden: notably China’s confrontations with Japan, India, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, its daily intimidation of Taiwan, and its repression in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong.
Indeed, much of his narrative was closer to theology than reality.
While true to his legacy of acknowledging indigenous dispossession, he portrayed the continent as a Garden of Eden, ‘the greatest gift any nation has been given’.
He thus reduced the complexity of modern Australia to a kind of geopolitical Adam and Eve, as if ‘all we had to do was be in the region and be happy in the region’.
If only statecraft and security were so sublimely simple.
But behold, in our quest for self-defence, we have committed original sin: ‘But no, we’re not happy to be in the region. We’re still trying to find out security from Asia, rather than in Asia.’
And so having been tempted by ‘spooks’ to taste the forbidden fruit of national security, we have become a nation cast out, wandering to the ‘crazy land’ of America and the ‘old theme park’ of Britain in a forlorn quest for nuclear submarines.
Not that the Asian stage of his morality play has room for nuance either.
The misunderstood protagonist in Keating’s strategic theatre is China: anciently ‘harmonious’ yet forgivably ‘adolescent’ with ‘testosterone running everywhere’. It’s an odd analogy, when China’s ageing population and Xi’s despotic desperation more fittingly evoke warnings about an old man in a hurry.
As for other unhelpful caricatures, there’s America (mad, bad and fading), India (self-interested or worse, and anyway not really belonging in our part of Asia) and Japan (lacking even ‘a tuppence worth of common sense’ and forever stained by the villainy of a lifetime ago). Oh, and an Indonesia still imagined through his pact with Suharto’s dictatorship in 1995.
Taiwan is dismissed as an internal problem for China and of no vital concern to Australia or anybody else for that matter – including its 23 million people who have built a democracy against the odds.
If Keating wanted to galvanise national conversation about the fate of Taiwan, then let’s indeed be more open about how Australia and others can carefully assist a democratic society integral to the global economy, as it faces daily assault short of war.
But perhaps it is unfair to scrutinise every line of an 80-minute diatribe. Keating’s prime ministership, after all, really did champion Australian independence and regional engagement, even if too many of his lines today are borrowed (with deferential acknowledgement) from Americans like Henry Kissinger who themselves have showed scant respect for much of Asia.
What ultimately matters, however, is whether this intervention will affect Australia’s policy choices as an election looms.
It will only reinforce the reasonableness of the bipartisanship the parliamentary opposition has endorsed.
That includes Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s admonition to talk less, do more, hold government to account in making AUKUS a reality, and resource our Indo-Pacific diplomacy for the challenges ahead.