Why my hero Keating is wrong on China and our national security

Thursday 23 September, originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.

Paul Keating is a living legend, a great prime minister who had a vision for our place in the world. He was right about the Asian century and led us to think about Australia as part of Asia, not from Asia.

In an article in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald on Wednesday, Keating colourfully and rightly highlighted the narrowness of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s foreign and defence policies, yet his attacks reveal that – like Morrison – he has fallen into the trap of binary thinking: that Australia’s only choice is between a declining United States or a rising China.

Both are stuck in that paradigm rather than considering an alternative: a middle power path for Australia.

The fiasco of the government’s mismanagement of the submarine contract with France – its $40 billion budget blowout, delays and uncertainty around Australian jobs – led me earlier this year to call for a rethink of the deal and consideration of other options. The AUKUS deal announced with the US and Britain last week, while astute as a defence-capability decision, has limitations. It is not a strategy inclusive of broader partnerships and its execution has alienated France, a partner in the region, and risks overlooking others such as Indonesia, Japan and South Korea.

It is only one defence element in what should be a much broader multilateral diplomatic, defence and development engagement in the Indo-Pacific. We need a deeper collaboration with our partners to prop up and secure the liberal, rules-based order on trade and security. I have called this a “fulcrum of middle powers” that works with enough strategic weight to prop up that order.

Keating is wrong when he argues the AUKUS submarine deal reduces our sovereignty and operational independence because it would bring us under the “command” of the US. This misunderstands interoperability. We buy equipment from all over the world, but this does not reduce our sovereignty. Interoperability allows our equipment to work with that of our allies. It does not tie us to their operational command.

Keating also states that by strengthening our military capabilities we are accelerating an inevitable conflict with China. But the capability of our forces work so that the better they are, the more likely we deter other nations from conflict and channel them towards diplomacy.

It may be a coincidence that China announced its desire to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership immediately after the AUKUS announcement. In my view, we should take this as a good sign, as the potential of Australia’s greater capability leading another nation towards more diplomacy.

Beyond AUKUS, Keating downplays the changed geostrategic realities in the Indo-Pacific and the increased aggressiveness of Xi Jinping’s China. This aggressive wolf diplomacy has been directed not solely towards Australia but at many other countries such as Norway and Canada. Keating downgrades China’s retaliatory tariffs on Australian exports as “not a military aggression”. Has he forgotten that Australia’s prosperity relies on trade?

Keating is wilfully blind to China’s international aggression through cyber-attacks, which have caused major disruption to our university and corporate sectors.

Nor should Chinese island-pumping in the South China Sea, as Keating describes it, be let through to the keeper. China is knowingly breaking international law to create an artificial border risks freedom of navigation in international waters, which are critical to our trade and prosperity.

And there is the blatant abuse of human rights in Tibet, the Uyghur labour camps and the brutal shutdown of the Hong Kong democracy movement, which Keating blithely describes as “political domestic mismanagement”. It’s wrong for Keating to so casually discount China’s aggressiveness.

According to Keating, Australia’s response has been to run straight into the arms of the Anglosphere as our security guarantor. Yes, the US has played this role. Especially post-Vietnam, US primacy ensured regional stability and prosperity.

But Keating misses the main point. The US can’t play this role alone anymore. The Afghanistan and Iraq wars have weakened the US and China has become more powerful. The US must work with nations in the region, such as Australia, to protect the liberal rules-based order.

Increasing our own capabilities means we do have to become more independent and commit more diplomatic, defence and development resources to this effort. It does not mean we must be wedded to the US.

It is also wrong for Keating to conflate federal Labor’s approach to China with Morrison’s. Labor does not see China solely through the prism of threat or conflict. Our stance is to continue to engage constructively with China, keeping dialogue open.

Keating’s critique, and indeed mine, that Morrison’s foreign policy lacks vision is valid. Labor understands that Australia’s national interests are best served through a stable, secure region in which nations play by the same trade and security rules.

We need an Australia that invests in the development of its neighbours, conducts sophisticated diplomatic engagement and maintains regional security and stability with our allies – all critical to our prosperity.

Peter Khalil is the federal Labor Member for Wills. He was a national security adviser to prime minister Kevin Rudd and worked at both the Department of Defence and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.