Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 17 March 2023

On AUKUS, is Paul Keating OK with security on China’s terms?

Former prime minister Paul Keating during his appearance at the National Press Club. Picture: ABC
Former prime minister Paul Keating during his appearance at the National Press Club. Picture: ABC

On Wednesday, in the online edition of this newspaper, former prime minister and treasurer Paul Keating had a polemical essay running to more than 3000 words.

He denounced the AUKUS agreement and the decision by the Australian government, with bipartisan support, to purchase nuclear-powered submarines from the US and Britain. He was at his vituperative peak. The case he made must be answered. If he is correct, a vast number of us have fallen victim to a serious case of groupthink.

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    By his own account he is at odds with both sides of the federal parliament, the present Labor prime minister, foreign minister, defence minister and their cabinet colleagues, the intelligence agencies, the Department of Defence, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian (which nonetheless gave him ample space to expound his strong opinions) and most acknowledged strategic thinkers here, in Washington and in London. That’s to say nothing of those in India, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Singapore and elsewhere who have made plain they understand our decision and alignment. Even the French have done so.

    None of that gave Keating pause. He blithely asserts that there is no threat from China and that the US is insisting on military primacy in East Asia in defiance of reality and in an affront to China, “with the complicity of a reliable bunch of deputy sheriffs: Japan, Korea, Australia and India”. That’s some group of deputy sheriffs. This would be some case of groupthink.

    China, Keating asserted, is not seeking to export a different model of governance or to overturn the international order but it does seek to assert sovereignty over the island of Taiwan, which he brazenly described as a “so-called democracy”.

    So-called? I suppose, then, that we, too, have a so-called democracy. China does not. No one can call Xi Jinping’s regime democratic in any meaningful sense. During the past few decades, that very undemocratic China has undertaken the largest and most rapid peacetime military build-up in human history. It has been exporting surveillance and censorship technology around the world. It has aligned itself with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s relentless attempts to annex first parts and then the whole of Ukraine. It has militarised the South China Sea, in flat contradiction of undertakings not to do so.

    During the past few decades, that very undemocratic China has undertaken the largest and most rapid peacetime military build-up in human history. Picture: AFP
    During the past few decades, that very undemocratic China has undertaken the largest and most rapid peacetime military build-up in human history. Picture: AFP
    READ MORE: AUKUS Labor’s worst decision since WWI | ‘He’s still the Placido Domingo of Australian politics’ | Keating ignores genocide to defend his ‘China fantasy’ | AUKUS deal’s ‘tragic omission’ | Keating ‘has diminished himself’

    It has turned from collegial to dictatorial leadership. It has engaged in ruthless repression of the Uighurs in Xinjiang and of the democracy movement in Hong Kong. It has increased its internal security budget to levels even greater than its ballooning military budget. It has embarked on systematic attempts to achieve nuclear parity with the US and naval supremacy. It is seeking to take the lead in key hi-tech sectors with strategic implications.

    And its leader, Xi, repeatedly has stated that his military forces must be prepared to fight and win a war.

    None of this gives Keating pause. Our sharp-tongued former prime minister, in short, appears to believe it is perfectly reasonable for China to do all of the above but irrational and provocative for the US, Japan, India, South Korea, Britain and Australia – to which one might add Vietnam and The Philippines – to take any serious steps in response.

    How, ex­actly, does that compute? Let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment and imagine that Keating is seeing something that almost everyone else is somehow missing. What might that be?

    It might be what Hugh White, Bob Carr, Geoff Raby, John Menadue and others have been touting for many years as the inevitable and natural ascendancy of China to dominance in the 21st century. White used to anchor his argument in terms of Treasury projections that saw China’s economy becoming far larger than that of the US and its consequent throw weight in the international arena irresistible.

    Based on such projections, White and others have long called for what they see as strategic prudence: urging the US not to gamble on a confrontation it could not win and instead to cede hegemony in Asia to China on the basis that China would take it anyway and that it was, after all, not so different from US presumptions of hegemony in the Western hemisphere (North and South America and the Caribbean), since the 19th century.

    That argument often has been coupled with a vague idea that Australia needed to chart an independent course in its foreign and security policy, meaning one detached from the ANZUS alliance and Five Eyes. Its proponents never spelled out how this was expected to work. But Keating likes to talk it up as “security in Asia, rather than security from Asia”. In present circumstances, he appears to believe India, Japan, South Korea, The Philippines, Vietnam and that “so-called democracy”, Taiwan, ought also seek security “in Asia, rather than from Asia”.

    Under Xi Jinping’s China, the Communist Party is clinging to dictatorship and endangering prosperity. Picture: AFP
    Under Xi Jinping’s China, the Communist Party is clinging to dictatorship and endangering prosperity. Picture: AFP

    Yet if you subtract those countries from Asia, you don’t have a lot of Asia left. How can this be? The logical deduction, which Keating and his ilk appear to be comfortable with, is that “security in Asia” means security on China’s terms. But in that case, security from or against what? This they have never explained. That’s understandable. For the scenario envisaged would be inexplicable.

    There are, as it happens, three kinds of danger posed to the Asian and global order by Xi’s China.

    First, it openly seeks a hegemony in Asia, backed by force and coercion, rather than natural or earned leadership. Second, it faces a looming demographic, environmental and economic crisis by no later than 2030 that appears likely to derail its ascent, with the consequence that the next 10 years are a closing window of opportunity for it to change the facts on the ground (and the water) if it is ever going to do so.

    Third, it could, in the longer term, descend into disorder as a consequence of the failure of the Communist Party state apparatus to address the country’s rapidly growing problems. That would be almost as tragic a scenario as a war over Taiwan or the East China Sea.

    Our big bet, from the 1980s, doubled down on after the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989, was on a China that opened, prospered and liberalised. We want an open, prosperous China. There is a distinct possibility that we will see something quite other than that in decades ahead. We already have one that is shutting out the outside world.

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      The answer to Keating, therefore, is as Rory Medcalf, one of the most thoughtful and rational of our strategic analysts and head of the Australian National University’s National Security College, expressed it this past week: “At last, Australia is matching its defence capability to the challenges of its Indo-Pacific geography. With their incomparable range, stealth, intelligence-gathering edge and conventional firepower, nuclear-powered submarines operating from Australia – and within a decade by Australians – will suit the scale and gravity of the strategic risk the nation faces.”

      Keating has dismissed the nuclear submarines as being like “toothpicks thrown against a mountain”. Were that so, Beijing presumably would not be protesting so vehemently against its acquisition or against the AUKUS and Quadrilateral Security Dialogue alignments.

      Crucial to these alignments are concerns shared very widely about China’s hubris, military build-up and uncertain future behaviour.

      Central to them are plans to deter China from launching a war no one wants. They are not intended to choke or stifle China. We didn’t draw it into the World Trade Organisation and other leading international bodies to contain it but to help the Chinese Communist Party find a way to emulate the rest of East Asia in moving from poverty to prosperity and from dictatorship to democracy. The party is clinging to dictatorship and endangering prosperity. We and our neighbours and allies are responding with co-ordinated strategic caution. Hopefully, strategic caution will prevail in Asia.

      Paul Monk was head of the China desk in the Defence Intelligence Organisation when Paul Keating was prime minister. His book Thunder from the Silent Zone: Rethinking China will appear in a second, updated edition in July through all major online retailers. 

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