China, stupidity and Paul Keating

November 13, 2021
Paul Keating, at the National Press Club, warned against AUKUS.

Former Australian prime ministers tend to be less conspicuous in public life than their counterparts in other countries.

Occasionally, they make an appearance at political functions and events to remind us that they are still alive. For the most part their pronouncements are less than profound, but there are a few surprises.

Malcolm Fraser was one, considered dour when prime minister through the latter part of the 1970s and early 1980s, yet provocative on becoming an elder statesman. Once a Cold War warrior keen on keeping the United States involved in the Asia-Pacific, he became a critic of the US-Australia alliance.

Labor PM Paul Keating, defeated in 1996 by the anti-Asian John Howard, has a lot to tell the Australian National Press Club on November 10 about his taking of the geopolitical temperature. His targets were many, largely because so many have been offered.

Keating started with the AUKUS security alliance, made over the remains of the Australian-French submarine contract to build 12 attack class submarines, involved an undertaking by Britain and the United States to aid Australia in building eight nuclear-powered submarines. Such submarines, he said, are never going to meet water till two decades have passed, and this was the equivalent of “throwing a handful of toothpicks at a mountain”. 

As for China’s ambitions, Keating projected an attitude reminiscent of history don Alan John Percivale Taylor, when he turned his eye to the ambitions and behaviours of great powers in Europe.

China was not a rule breaker, but instead working within the very rules that had been created by an international order preceding their rise to power. They were behaving according to standard dictates of power and, along the way, “remodelled” in its entirety, the Australian economy.

“They are in the adolescent phase of their diplomacy, they have testosterone running everywhere, the Chinese, but we have to deal with them because their power will be so profound in this part of the world.”

Reasoned in such a way, China was “simply too big and too central to be ostracised.” It was “now so big and it is going to grow so large, it will have no precedents in modern social and economic history.” The United States would have to play the role of a “balancing and conciliatory power in Asia” and Australia would be foolish to involve itself in the Taiwan dispute, it “not [being] a vital Australian interest”.

Alas, Washington had other ideas — at least for the moment, having not “come to a point of accommodation where [it] acknowledges China’s pre-eminence in east Asia and the Asian mainland, in which case we can start to move towards a sensible relationship with China”.

As for where Australia fitted into the alliance structure of the Indo-Pacific and Asia-Pacific, Keating offered a razor-sharp assessment. “We have no relationship with Beijing, so why would the Prime Minister of Malaysia or Thailand talk to us about East Asia when we are non-speakers with the biggest power, the Chinese?”

A significant power such as Indonesia had been consistently and assiduously ignored. Canberra persisted in trying to find its “security from Asia rather than in Asia”.

Keating also levelled a blow at his own party’s shadow foreign minister, Penny Wong, who had “taken a position there shouldn’t be an ounce of daylight between her and the [governing] Liberal Party". Doing so, he suggested, meant that “you end up with a pretty quiet political life. No big disputes because you are glued to the government. But you make no national progress.”

This was a source of much regret for Keating, repudiating that “proud history of engagement with Asia and including China” Labor held. “Now it’s just gone ‘pass,’ so debate trickery goes on.”

His suggestion, and one that will be rebuffed with fury in Canberra, is to accord China a degree of recognition befitting its stance. “If we give China the recognition I believe it is due in terms of legitimacy … then I think a lot of these issues, the so-called 14 points, sort off fall of the table.”

On the role of Britain, Keating was appropriately savage. This desire to be involved east of Suez, again, was a childish nostalgia impervious to reality. “Can Britain help us here?  No. The other state that was able to help us was France and we rudely turned our back on it.”

The reaction to such sober-edged analysis was never going to go down well in the zombie establishment gearing for war. There are invisible submarines to build, a regional arms race to encourage, false promises to make.

Defence Minister Peter Dutton suggested the title of “Grand Appeaser Comrade Keating”. 

Australia’s noisiest shock jock for Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News, Andrew Bolt concluded that Keating was not of this planet. “Keating’s big message was this: Australia’s in China’s region. China is very big, and we, and we — and America — should stop challenging it … and instead, in his words, accommodate ourselves to China.”

There have been some defenders of the former PM, insisting that he has something sensible to say. ABC host and commentator Stan Grant said that Keating “is not an apologist for Chinese authoritarianism but a cold-eyed realist about Chinese power and how it can be incorporated into a global political order”. But realism, for the moment at least, has been anathemised.

The Anglophone alliance that is AUKUS is testament to that fact. Blood-thirsty nostalgia and the ning-nongs are intent on running the show.

[Dr Binoy Kampmark lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.]

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