Originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald
The chief frustration for an ex-prime minister is watching your former colleagues making big decisions without you, especially if you disagree with them. After offering advice in private, the big temptation is to repeat that advice in public on those occasions when it’s not acted upon. Sometimes, this might be worth doing in the overall national interest; but in the case of Paul Keating yesterday, it suggests a bad case of the Relevance Deprivation Syndrome he insists that he’s not suffering from.
While Keating’s service to the nation should be acknowledged and respected, especially his fine work as Treasurer in Labor’s greatest government, he’s seriously wrong about the AUKUS submarine project and about the rapidly intensifying strategic competition from the current government in Beijing.
It was never a good idea to spend 15 years redesigning an existing French nuclear submarine and building a conventional version in Adelaide only to end up with something inferior to what could be had now. Obtaining a nuclear-powered submarine from Britain or America was an option I wish had been available back in 2015 once my preference for quickly obtaining Japanese submarines off-the-shelf had been torpedoed by the cargo cult politics of South Australia. Scott Morrison’s lasting achievement as PM will be the original AUKUS decision which Anthony Albanese immediately backed, to his great credit. The only real question mark over the Morrison decision was whether it could be carried through in practice and now Albanese and his Defence Minister Richard Marles have come up with a brilliant plan, bi-partisan across three countries, that all-but-guarantees it will happen.
As fashioned by Albanese and Marles, the overall deal means that US and UK nuclear submarines will be operating out of Australia within five years, that we will obtain our first nuclear submarine within a decade rather than two, and that we will ultimately be a significant partner to Britain leading a tripartite project, rather than an insignificant one in an otherwise wholly American effort. It also locks “global Britain” (that continues to be the West’s second largest military power) into the security arrangements of the Indo-Pacific.
It’s hard to fathom Keating’s contention that jointly developing a nuclear submarine with Britain and America is somehow a loss of sovereignty when developing a conventional one with the French was not. It’s also hard to fathom Keating’s sneering references to Britain as “gormless” and his scathing dismissal of Japan and India as a “reliable bunch of deputy sheriffs” to the United States. Apart from being unbecoming, it’s simply untrue, especially of India, which has moved out of decades of “non-alignment” precisely because of the Chinese threat which Keating thinks is non-existent.
Keating is quite wrong that the Beijing government poses no threat to anyone. Tell that to the Uighurs or to the people of Hong Kong whose suppression was economic self-harm that Beijing was more than happy to endure in the pursuit of national aggrandisement. Although Beijing would clearly prefer to win without war, following Sun Tzu, there’s no doubt about the intention to take Taiwan, an island democracy of nearly 25 million people that the CCP has never ruled, by force if necessary; and to be the world’s number one power by mid-century.
When dictators are open about their plans for us, they should be taken seriously. The Chinese embassy was good enough declare in late 2020, via its 14 demands, that Australia’s role in any region that Beijing dominated would be to accept all Chinese investment, host all Chinese students, never criticise Chinese policy, and become effectively a Chinese economic colony. And in response to our attempt to gain the weapons systems needed to make us less vulnerable, Beijing has already threatened to make us a nuclear target.
As for Keating’s view that Taiwan is expendable, why should another democracy of some 25 million people be expendable and Australia not? Moreover, any attempt to take Taiwan, even before it came to fighting, would already have jeopardised world trade and put standards of living at risk, with disruptions many orders of magnitude greater than those associated with Putin’s war on Ukraine.
Even if America, taking Keating’s advice, preferred to stand aside from Taiwan’s defence, it’s hard to see Japan doing so and that would most likely trigger America’s alliance obligations and ours too. That’s why the Sydney Morning Herald’s recent series on the risk of war was so timely and significant. And that’s why our own military preparedness should now be tackled with an urgency comparable to Britain’s increase in Spitfire production in 1938-39. The only way to avoid the war that Beijing routinely threatens is to raise the costs of cross straits aggression, and that means making Beijing worry that it would pit China against the world.
Despite once dismissing him as “just a trier”, Keating has actually twisted John Curtin’s politically brave wartime decision to introduce conscription, but only for service south of the equator, into the perverse doctrine that nothing north of Jakarta is a vital national interest to us. Australia could not continue to flourish as a free and prosperous nation except in a world made safe for democracy by the ultimate willingness of America and its staunchest allies to defend it. Far from being the worst decision any Labor government has made, the AUKUS decision shows that we remain capable of uniting around a great national project despite all the other things that still divide us.