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Let’s get real, why are we still listening to Paul Keating?

There, I said it. Former prime minister and long-time pearl clutcher, Paul Keating, has used an address to the National Press Club to launch a scathing attack on the recent AUKUS submarine announcement, including attacking his own party, while also redoubling calls for Australia to abandon the US and UK “puppet masters” to go our own way. 

There, I said it. Former prime minister and long-time pearl clutcher, Paul Keating, has used an address to the National Press Club to launch a scathing attack on the recent AUKUS submarine announcement, including attacking his own party, while also redoubling calls for Australia to abandon the US and UK “puppet masters” to go our own way. 

Our world has changed significantly since the 1990s — gone are the heady days of elated optimism in the aftermath of the collapse of Lenin and Stalin’s “evil empire”, in is the global information super highway, a truly global economy responsible for lifting hundreds of millions, if not billions out of abject poverty, yet it seems, someone has forgotten to tell former prime minister Paul Keating. 

Today however, the era of post-Cold War optimism and the era of “Pax Americana” is over. Globalisation is dying a slow, agonising death as the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated that despite our best and loftiest intentions, the world and humanity will always default to self-interest when confronted with the eternal reality of mortality. 


This realisation has been further compounded by the until recently, quietly stalking of the global order by revisionist, predatory nations with ambitions of empire, conquest, and unrivalled global hegemony. These nations, often backed by revolutionary ideologies, are underpinned by historic grievances stoked by domestic politicians, who will seek to crush internal dissent and throttle the resistance of international neighbours for any inconvenient question or challenge to their ambitions. 

Establishing a new Rome

I am, of course, referring to Xi Jinping’s China, which has moved away from the moderate shift towards liberalisation (or at least as liberal as a totalitarian regime can become) under Hu Jintao towards a truly globally focused power, with ambitions of asserting and establishing hegemony over much of Asia, while seeking to strengthen and overhaul its international image through debt trap diplomacy, elite capture, and foreign direct investment throughout the developing world. 

Across our own region, Beijing has extended its influence and reach, through the South Pacific, across the Indian Ocean, in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and across much of sub-Saharan Africa, Beijing now effectively controls much of the critical infrastructure, resource deposits, and political leadership through its Belt and Road Initiative and other forms of foreign direct investment, which like the old adage of “all roads lead to Rome”, seeks to establish Beijing as the 21st century’s imperial centre. 

This is explained by The Washington Post investigative reporter Ishaan Tharoor, who explains the Sri Lankan example, stating, “Beijing is Sri Lanka’s lone biggest creditor, accounting for some 10 per cent of the country’s foreign debt. Between 2000 and 2020, it extended close to US$12 billion in loans to the Sri Lankan government, largely for a slate of major infrastructure projects that turned into white elephants — including a costly port facility in the Rajapaksas’ hometown of Hambantota, which was effectively ceded to Chinese control half a decade ago after Sri Lankan authorities recognised they could no longer pay off the loans.”

Harry Verhoeven, senior research scholar at Columbia University in New York, reinforces Beijing’s push to ensnare developing nations through debt trap diplomacy, particularly in developing African nations, stating: “It is not uncommon for China to do something like [forgive interest-free loans] … Now, obviously, it is connected to the overall debt-trap diplomacy narrative in the sense that clearly there’s a felt need on the part of China to push back. For many years the Chinese would kind of shrug at various aspects, various lines of criticism, pertaining to their engagement in different African countries.”

Australia becomes front and centre

Australia has borne the brunt of much of Beijing’s rising hostility and aggression, when during the height of COVID-19 we dared question the origins of the global pandemic which resulted in hundreds of billions of dollars in sanctions against Australian agricultural produce, raw materials, and energy in an attempt to subdue us into compliance. 

This slip of the mask was not the first hint of Beijing’s broader ambitions, as the rising superpower has long developed small islands and atolls throughout the South China Sea into “unsinkable aircraft carriers” as a means of laying claim to raw resources in the area, controlling the globally significant sea lines of communication through which approximately US$5.4 trillion worth of global trade flows annually and building the foundation for Beijing’s own version of Imperial Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. 

The impact of this militarisation in the South China Sea is best explained by US Indo-Pacific Commander Admiral John Aquilino who states that Beijing’s hostility was in stark contrast to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s past assurances that Beijing would not transform the artificial islands in contested waters into military bases, where he states: “Over the past 20 years, we’ve witnessed the largest military build-up since World War Two by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). They have advanced all their capabilities and that build-up of weaponisation is destabilising to the region.

“The function of those islands is to expand the offensive capability of the PRC beyond their continental shores. They can fly fighters, bombers plus all those offensive capabilities of missile systems. So that’s the threat that exists, that’s why it’s so concerning for the militarisation of these islands. They threaten all nations who operate in the vicinity and all the international sea and airspace,” ADM Aquilino added. 

In response, Australia has sought to insure itself in the face of potential conflict, particularly in the event of the forcible reunification of Taiwan and the ensuing economic, political, and strategic fallout such an invasion and occupation would have on the overall security and stability of the Indo-Pacific and in particular, Australia’s primary sphere of influence, security, and economic opportunity. 

At the core of this response is both the Albanese government’s much anticipated Defence Strategic Review and the AUKUS trilateral relationship between Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom which will see Australia operate and develop a fleet of nuclear-powered attack submarines, as a key strategic means for securing our own national interests. 

Now no rational person can begrudge a nation and its government for pursuing its own national interests, China included — the same applies for Australia pursuing and furthering its own national interests. 

However, is the case with Beijing, that only seems to be the case when one’s interests don’t conflict with their broader ambitions for both the Indo-Pacific and broader global community. 

Deny till you die — but we have been threatened and actively coerced  

Enter former prime minister Paul Keating who has used an address to the National Press Club in Canberra to launch a tirade against Australia’s pursuit of nuclear-powered submarines and resistance to Beijing’s imperial ambitions, who forgets that weakness and division invites open hostility and threats to our own interests.

For, in the words of former US president Ronald Reagan, “we know only too well that war comes, not when the forces of freedom are strong, it is when they are weak that tyrants are tempted”.

Keating begins his attack against Australia’s AUKUS partnership and defence of Beijing by stating, “underlying all of this stuff about the need for nuclear-powered subs, is the idea that China either has threatened us, or will threaten us. All of this is a distortion, and it is untrue. The Chinese have never implied that they would threaten us or said it explicitly”.

Well, Mr Keating, I refer you to these statements by Beijing’s former ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, who said in 2020, “So what is being done by the Australia side? The proposition is a kind of teaming up with those forces in Washington and to launch a kind of political campaign against China. The Chinese public is frustrated, dismayed, and disappointed with what Australia is doing now.

“I think in the long term ... if the mood is going from bad to worse, people would think ‘Why should we go to such a country that is not so friendly to China? The tourists may have second thoughts. The parents of the students would also think whether this place which they found is not so friendly, even hostile, whether this is the best place to send their kids here.”

Going further, Cheng said, “It is up to the (Chinese) people to decide. Maybe the ordinary people will say ‘Why should we drink Australian wine? Eat Australian beef?’” 

If that doesn’t constitute outright economic coercion and by extension a threat to Australia’s economic prosperity and stability, perhaps his additional statement about our economic dependence on China does: “You have been talking about your continuous economic growth, for the past 28 years. You have talked a lot about your trade surplus. It seems sometimes, some people forget what are the reasons behind that. China’s growth and the cooperation between China and Australia in trade, economic and other areas, is a major factor in that growth.”

These points were later reinforced by Cheng’s acting successor, Wang Xining, who expanded on the now well-documented list of 14 grievances against Australia, stating, “It’s funny that your colleague in another media (outlet) who had an off-the-record chat with one of my colleagues fabricated a so-called 14-point list, because the list should be longer than 14 point.” 

In the case of Keating, a “threat” constitutes an invasion, which he explains, thus, “what threaten us means is an invasion of Australia. It (a threat) doesn’t mean firing a few missiles off the coast like the Japanese submarines did in 1943, firing a few things into the Eastern suburbs of Sydney. It means an invasion”.

Perhaps somebody needs to remind Mr Keating that Australia is, in fact, an island nation that is woefully dependent on the free and unmolested access to the maritime commons for our continuing prosperity and economic stability and that no one is seriously suggesting a Chinese invasion of Australia. 

Rather, a threat to our national sovereignty, economic stability, and national security would rather be targeted at isolating Australia and limiting our access to the maritime commons and more broadly global commons through a host of hard power challenges to sea lines of communication, the sea floor communications cables, and more broadly cyber security attacks. 

This is explained best by Bryan Clark, a former US submarine officer and senior Navy official, now an analyst for the Hudson Institute who explained, “China is attempting to exert more control over undersea activities in its region, in part to prevent US surveillance systems from being installed as part of undersea cable deployment ... the Chinese government also wants to know exactly where civilian undersea infrastructure is installed for its own mapping purposes.”

For reference, according to Clark and the Financial Times, approximately 95 per cent of all intercontinental internet traffic — data, video calls, instant messages, and emails — is transmitted via more than 400 active submarine cables that extend for 1.4 million kilometres.

I will leave those points there for you to ponder whether the only form of “threat” to Australia can come from an invasion as the Euro-centric focused Keating professes. 

Out of touch, out of the loop, but one concession 

One has to ask, when was the last time Mr Keating received an up-to-date briefing? When has he engaged with Australia’s intelligence community to receive an assessment of the challenges facing the nation? 

Even if Mr Keating has received a briefing in the last week, it is clear he has made up his own mind, as evidenced by his attacks against the likes of Director-General of National Intelligence Andrew Shearer, where he states: “Yet, we approached the United States — not the other way around, on the arguments put to Morrison by the security agencies led by Andrew Shearer and ASPI and as it turns out, without even reference to the Department of Foreign Affairs or its minister. Rather, and remarkably, a Labor government has picked up Shearer’s neo-con proclivities and those of ASPI, a pro-US cell led by a recent former chief of staff to Liberal foreign minister Marise Payne.”

Going further, Keating does make a valid point, stating, “Signing the country up to the foreign proclivities of another country — the United States, with the gormless Brits, in their desperate search for relevance, lunging along behind is not a pretty sight ... So Britain, which removed its battle fleet from East Asia in 1904, surrendered its citadel in Singapore in 1942, adopted its East of Suez policy in 1968, formally walking out on strategic obligations to Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Malaysia with its FPDA, the so-called Five Power Defence Agreement — finally dumping us in 1973 following its grand entry into the European Common Market, is now to be rewarded in its long contempt of us by having us fork out for the design of Britain’s next Astute Class submarine.”

In doing so, Keating stresses the importance of Australia building greater sovereignty in its own foreign policy and defence policy — something I will agree with unequivocally, however, where we differ is how this is developed and implemented. 

Central to understanding Australia’s role as a true strategic benefactor in the Indo-Pacific, we need to clearly identify our primary area of responsibility. While many analysts, commentators, and political decision makers continue to place growing emphasis on the South Pacific as Australia’s historic primary area of responsibility, largely due to recent decades of Australian intervention, neglecting the shifting dynamics across Southeast Asia and through to the Indian Ocean.  

Despite the recent emphasis on the South Pacific, the radically different power dynamics between these disparate areas present real challenges and opportunities for Australia’s strategic policy makers to grapple with and plan for accordingly, particularly as rival great powers and emerging middle powers compete for resource access and work to build spheres of influence throughout the region.

Accordingly, the growing economic importance of the nations bordering the Indian Ocean and throughout Southeast Asia up to the Philippines, combined with the well understood strategic importance of these areas require expanded and significant focus for Australia moving forward — while costly, the benefits of establishing Australia as a neutral, strategic benefactor and “offshore” balancer provides immense benefits in the face of mounting strategic challenges. 

The rapidly deteriorating circumstances from the east coast of Africa to the Bismarck Archipelago and up to the Philippines, which include Australia’s strategically vital sea lines of communication and resupply, particularly for liquid energy, as well as market access for our raw materials and agricultural produce will require significant capability investment to ensure Australia’s national security and resilience remain intact. 

Australia, as both a continent and a nation, is unique in its position, enjoying relative geographic isolation from the flash points of global and regional conflagrations of the 20th century. Blessed with unrivalled resource wealth and with the growing pace of automation, industrial potential, the nation has been able to embrace vastly different approaches to the nation’s strategic role and responsibilities.

As a nation, Australia is at a precipice and both the Australian public and the nation’s political and strategic leaders need to decide what they want the nation to be: do they want the nation to become an economic, political, and strategic backwater caught between two competing great empires and a growing cluster of periphery great powers? Or does Australia “have a crack” and actively establish itself as a regional great power with all the benefits it entails?

So, I return to my initial question, why do we still listen to a man so egregiously out of touch with the reality of the contemporary geopolitical environment?

Lessons for Australia’s future strategic planning

There is no doubt that Australia’s position and responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific region will depend on the nation’s ability to sustain itself economically, strategically and politically in the face of rising regional and global competition.

Despite the nations virtually unrivalled wealth of natural resources, agricultural and industrial potential, there is a lack of a cohesive national security strategy integrating the development of individual, yet complementary public policy strategies to support a more robust Australian role in the region.

While contemporary Australia has been far removed from the harsh realities of conflict, with many generations never enduring the reality of rationing for food, energy, medical supplies or luxury goods, and even fewer within modern Australia understanding the socio-political and economic impact such rationing would have on the now world-leading Australian standard of living.  

Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia, this is particularly well explained by Peter Zeihan, who explains:

"A deglobalised world doesn’t simply have a different economic geography, it has thousands of different and separate geographies. Economically speaking, the whole was stronger for the inclusion of all its parts. It is where we have gotten our wealth and pace of improvement and speed. Now the parts will be weaker for their separation."

Accordingly, shifting the public discussion and debate away from the default Australian position of "it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother" will provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.

As events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power, or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..   

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