Australia now has an adventurous and activist foreign policy again. But it has not answered the questions that the former prime minister raises.
For the foreign minister’s National Press Club speech this week, we need to thank the interventions of former prime minister Paul Keating. Australia is at last having the foreign policy debate it has needed to have for a long time.
Whatever one’s views on Keating’s interventions, he has achieved his primary objective, which was to cut through the wilful silence around Australia and the region as we seek to navigate the greatest geopolitical contest since the end of the Cold War. If nothing else, Keating is the master of the cut-through.
Remember the “banana republic”, the “recession we had to have”, and “snapping the stick of inflation”, all of which helped to reposition public discourse and open the way for sound policy development. As Keating would say, he now has “the dogs barking”. He has achieved his primary objective.
It is entirely predictable that some sections of the media have reduced the weighty issues of national security raised by Keating to matters of personality. While Keating’s style grates with some and amuses others, the deeper cause of the strong reaction is the substance of what he has to say. He is questioning the easy bipartisan assumption on which Australia’s security policy is based: “all the way with the USA”.
Apparently, Keating’s message is already having some resonance in Labor Party branches. This may in part explain the urgency with which Penny Wong has sought to put the sword to Keating. The problem for Wong is that the government’s political difficulties will not disappear.
AUKUS will not strengthen Australia’s security for a decade or more even on the most optimistic assumptions; it will do nothing to alter materially the strategic balance in the region in favour of the US as China continues to invest heavily in its military and its capacity to do so expands with continued economic growth; and the region, except for Japan for the moment, does not see the security challenges in Manichean terms, as Wong does.
China is already a dominant influence in the region, and the region is responding to it and being shaped by that reality.
The foreign minister’s speech is an admirable account of an activist foreign policy agenda by the government, especially about the Pacific. It displays a welcome new tone, spirit and energy for Australian foreign policy, something that has been missing for the past decade. Its weakness, however, is that it is premised on the idea of a “strategic equilibrium” being attainable in this region.
The speech is asking us to look away from the reality of great power rivalry, arguing that not to do so denies “agency” to smaller states. A sleight of hand is at work. Great power rivalry between the US and China is driving our policies and those of our regional neighbours. But it is taking Australia in a different direction from our regional neighbours. This is the uncomfortable truth that the foreign minister is keen to avoid, and that Keating has sought to highlight.
As the dominant power, the US has now for some time made no secret of the fact that it is determined to resist China’s rise. The Trump administration embarked on an explicit policy of containment which has been continued and ramped up under Joe Biden. The US is practising its own trade coercion against China, ranging from semiconductors to critical minerals, while circling the wagons with its allies. Australia has been an enthusiastic participant.
So, in this sense, there is nothing new in the foreign minister’s speech. It is a restatement that we join with the US in seeking to contain China; a continuation of the Coalition’s foreign policy of the past decade. This is in essence what Keating was saying in his rebuttal.
As former Singaporean foreign secretary Kishore Mahbubani wrote recently, Australia and ASEAN have “drifted further apart in their management of geopolitical challenges”. Past weeks have seen visits by the Malaysian and Singaporean prime ministers to Beijing. The Malaysian prime minister also proposed during his visit a yuan-denominated regional development bank, explicitly to promote China’s currency as an alternative to the US dollar in regional financial architecture.
The idea itself may come to nothing, but the sentiment it reflects needs to be taken seriously. How will Australia respond to this and any number of ideas that bring to the fore the binary choice that Wong is so keen to deny?
Straw man argument
It is disappointing that in such a well-argued speech, the foreign minister felt the need to reach for a straw man when she said “some imply we should attach ourselves to what they anticipate will be a hegemonic China”. This would be an entirely wrong – and perhaps wilfully so – mischaracterisation of Keating’s position.
China is already a dominant influence in the region, and the region is responding to it and being shaped by that reality, whether the foreign minister recognises that or not. The US is contesting that, but some such as Keating and Hugh White question whether the US has the staying power – and, if it does, could it prevail over China?
It is risky to base our foreign policy, as Wong seems to be doing, on the indispensability of the US to the Asia-Pacific region, as desirable as that may be.
The questions Keating has raised still need to be answered. They require a more informed understanding of the contemporary reality of China: realistic calculations of threat and deterrence; a greater alignment in strategic thinking with ASEAN; a frank assessment of the reliability of the US as a guarantor of Australia’s security; and Australia’s political willingness to follow the US into war. Let the conversation begin.
First published in the FINANCIAL REVIEW April 19, 2023