Paul Keating on Australia’s national interest, Taiwan, and the absurdity of war

Oct 7, 2022
Map showing China, SE Asia and Australia

Australia is still trying to find its place in Asia, Paul Keating says, which explains why we’re so preoccupied with Taiwan and China.

Former prime minister Paul Keating has the habit of talking truth to power. And as his far-ranging conversation with Laura Tingle at the National Press Club on Wednesday so forcefully demonstrated, he has the more remarkable habit of talking power to those who are parsimonious with the truth.

In his inimitable way, Keating wove his words to deliver a trenchant criticism of the inability of successive governments to secure Australia’s place in Asia, playing fast and loose with the finer details of English geography as he did so. His message, however, was clear: we are still trying to find our security from Asia rather than in Asia. And that, in large measure, explains our preoccupation with Taiwan as a trigger for war between the US and China, and the expectation that we would automatically side with the US in such a war.

The past five years have seen a precipitous decline in the quality of our relationship with China, as much a consequence of the boisterous barracking emanating from Australia as it is a result of some maladroit “wolf warrior” diplomacy on China’s part. For a country that is unsure of its place in the world, Australia was inevitably going to find it difficult to adjust to China’s economic growth, political power and strategic dominance in Asia. And we have managed to turn concern into fear as we continue to avoid the constant and difficult conceptual work entailed in developing a calibrated and nuanced policy to reconcile our economic dependence on China’s growth and our security dependence on US military power.

In mid-2021, The Australia Institute conducted a poll in Australia and Taiwan to assess public attitudes towards China and related security concerns in both Australia and Taiwan. Analysis of the polling data indicates that Australians and Taiwanese are equally afraid of China and distrusting of its intentions towards Taiwan, but only one in five is prepared to go to war in support of Taiwan. One of the key findings was that Taiwan is a live issue in the Australian electorate, but one that lacks a contemporary policy context.

The political status of Taiwan as a democratic province of the People’s Republic of China is essentially irrelevant to consideration of the strategic factors that are at play. No one in Australia would for a moment contemplate going to the military aid of the Catalan people of Barcelona in their quest for political independence from the Castilian people of Madrid. In fact, like the EU, we remain completely disengaged from what we judge to be an internal issue for Spain. Yet, because of its role as a tripwire in the US-China relationship, we accord Taiwan overwhelming strategic significance.

The facts suggest otherwise.

First, Taiwan is not a US ally. When the US established diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1979, it abrogated the Mutual Defence Treaty (an alliance), replacing it with the Taiwan Relations Act to govern commercial, economic, military and political relations between the US and a geographical entity — all without treaty status.

Second, the ANZUS treaty does not address the status of Taiwan, nor would it be automatically invoked by a crisis in the Taiwan Strait. This fact has been recognised by several political leaders on both sides of the Australian political divide.

Third, Taiwan is not an Australian ally either. Australia recognises China’s claim to Taiwan, and has no treaty relationships with Taiwan. And it is an entirely wrong reading of the ANZUS treaty to claim that any US action to uphold the security interests of Taiwan would necessarily involve Australia.

And finally, Australia has no direct strategic interest in Taiwan, regardless of any claims that Taiwan might like to register. As the Defence Strategic Update 2020 takes care to point out, Australia’s strategic priorities are “from the north-eastern Indian Ocean, through maritime and mainland South-East Asia to Papua New Guinea and the south-west Pacific”. Any argument for Australian involvement further afield would be a systems argument — that Australia does not want an order where China sets all the rules — rather than one based on direct strategic interests: it does not follow that Australia has to choose a military response.

While Keating’s language is provocative — he evidently loves the effect — his arguments are not easily dismissed. He has a powerful sense of Australia’s national interest (its identity and power), and always filters his views through the lens of how that national interest is best promoted and protected. War, especially one that might raise the spectre of nuclear annihilation, is never a rational option where there are the alternatives offered by diplomacy. In reminding us of the need to rebuild our relationship with China and to ignore the calls to arms favoured by the more excitable members of the national security community, the former prime minister has done all of us a good service.


A Pearls & Irritations repost from November 21, 2021.

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