‘IT WOULD MAKE A CAT LAUGH’
Key moments from Paul Keating’s National Press Club appearance on 10/11/2021
The former Australian prime minister Paul Keating spoke to the National Press Club on Wednesday, denouncing the US and UK-backed plan for nuclear-powered submarines, accusing Australian political parties of losing their way on foreign policy and saying the public was being led astray on China by a debate dominated by intelligence services. Here are some key parts of his address:
AUSTRALIA HAS ‘LOST ITS WAY’
The country is now very much at odds with its geography and it has lost its way. We had the greatest gift any nation has ever been given, an island, a continent of our own and a border with nobody. All we had to do to keep it is be in it, be in the region, be in the region and be happy to be in the region. What a gift. But, no, we are not happy to be in the region.
We are still trying to find our security from Asia rather than in Asia, so here we had the prime minister going back to Cornwall, where James Cook had left 245 years earlier and where Arthur Phillip and the first fleet had left 233 years earlier.
The ignominy of it – the appalling ignominy of it speaks volumes about our incapacity to absorb the region, enjoy the region, be part of the region and to celebrate the fact we have been here. The thing is … the area that matters most to Australia, the area which should be our strategic habitat, is the Indonesian archipelago: 250 million people in an arc across the northern reaches of Australia, a central part of Asean.
This is where we matter most but instead of that we have got this sort of fiction, this thing called the Indo-Pacific – like a big rectangular box, on one end of the box is India, on the other end of the box is Japan, but in other words we’re not focusing on the middle of the box which is Indonesia and Asean. We’re on either end. It is like a see-saw at the park. We are on the wobbly ends but not the pivot at the middle.
There is no way India is going to find itself with any naval military flotilla in the South China Sea to protect us from China.
‘A HANDFUL OF TOOTHPICKS AT THE MOUNTAIN’
Eight submarines against China when we get the submarines in 20 years’ time – it’ll be like throwing a handful of toothpicks at the mountain. What [Australian ambassador to the US Arthur] Sinodinos is talking about are attack class submarines to contain Chinese submarines … to attack them and knock them out.
What’s that got to do with the defence of Australia and what possible impact could we have militarily with eight submarines? These Virginia class submarines were designed in the 1990s. By the time we have half a dozen of them, it will be 2045 or 2050 – they will be 50 or 60 years old.
In other words, our new submarines will be old tech, like buying an old 747. And here we are, we’re going to wait 20-odd years to get the first one and 35 or 40 years to get the lot for what will be then very old boats.
In fact, the newest submarine in the world, the newest designed one, is a French low-enriched nuclear one. If we would have been sensibly looking at and thinking, no, we need more range than the Collins can provide, 3,500 tonnes, we need to go to 4,500 or 5,000 the obvious choice, if we were unhappy with diesels, the obvious choice was the most modern submarine on the drawing board, which is the French nuclear submarine.
No, no, we are rushing over, this has got the Liberal party fingerprint all over it, now we’re going to rush back to the Americans, we’re going to rush back to a dated design. But the whole point of these hunter-killer submarines is to round up the Chinese nuclear submarines and keep them in the shallow waters of the Chinese continental shelf before they get to the Mariana Trench and become invisible. In other words, to stop the Chinese having a second strike nuclear capability against the United States. This is the game we’re now in.
In the Collins game, we were in the defence of Australia. In the Virginia class game, we are hunter-killing Chinese submarines. This changes our whole relationship.
DEFENDING TAIWAN ‘ NOT IN AUSTRALIA’S INTEREST’
Taiwan is not a vital Australian interest. We have no alliance with Taipei. There is no piece of paper sitting in Canberra which has an alliance with Taipei. We do not recognise it as a sovereign state – we’ve always seen it as a part of China.
Anzus commits to consult under an attack on US forces but not an attack by US forces. This is a very important point. My view is Australia should not be drawn into a military engagement over Taiwan, US-sponsored or otherwise.
The only time the Chinese will attack or be involved in Taiwan is if the Americans and the Taiwanese try and declare a change in the status of Taiwan.
ON CHINA’S WOLF WARRIOR DIPLOMACY
They are in the rude phase, they are in the adolescent phase of their diplomacy, they have testosterone running everywhere, the Chinese, but we have to deal with them because their power will be so profound in this part of the world.
ON REBUILDING RELATIONSHIPS WITH BEIJING
At least give it respect. What the Chinese want, I think, is respect for what they’ve created. Our central proposition should be that the rise of China is entirely valid. What the Chinese want is acknowledgement of the validity of what they have done and what they have created: the legitimacy of the rise of China from its colonial past and from poverty.
CHINA AND HUMAN RIGHTS: ‘IT CAN’T BE THE WHOLE CONVERSATION’
We should always speak out human rights, we should always reserve the right to speak out on human rights, whether it’s the Uyghurs in China, but can I also say, it’s the Muslims in Kashmir. Here is Prime Minister Modi, our new friend, who has suspended, repudiated the autonomy of Kashmir, which is 94% Muslim.
No wave of indignation in the Sydney Morning Herald or the Age about that. I mean, India is an ally. We don’t talk about allies, we only talk about notional enemies. So I believe Australia should always have the right to speak in support [of human rights], but this is the key point: you can speak powerfully about the rights of citizens of these countries, but it can’t be the whole conversation. In other words, you can’t let the human rights discussions supplant wholly and completely the discussion between the countries.
ON XI AS PRESIDENT FOR LIFE: ‘A BELIEF IN HARMONY’
Well, it’s a good way to stay in power, I guess. It’s not my way. I actually believe in a community’s right to dismiss the government. But you’ve got to remember that China is broadly a Confucian society that believes in harmony, in authority, and it is with this background that it accepts, I think broadly, the role of the Chinese Communist party. I mean, the idea that we have that if you don’t vote at the local ballot box, that is, if you are not a Jeffersonian liberal, then you are a savage, belies the fact that China has a 4,000-year history which has these characteristics about it.
ON BRITAIN”S TILT TO THE INDO-PACIFIC: ‘OLD THEME PARK’
You know, here’s our old friend – what’s his name – the British prime minister waxing lyrical down there in Cornwall. I mean, Britain is like an old theme park sliding into the Atlantic compared to modern China. China is just going to be huge.
CHINA v THE US: ‘IT WOULD MAKE A CAT LAUGH’
In October 2020, the IMF in its annual report nominated China as the world’s largest economy. It says China’s economy is now 20% larger than the United States, 24tn versus 20tn – a report which was endorsed by the CIA. So you have the IMF and the CIA out there saying China is 20% bigger than the United States now. These are the key numbers. American GDP per capita is $60,000. China’s GDP per capita is $10,000.
But as China is moving out of its old model of cheap manufactured goods, their income is going to rise. But at 10,000 US dollars per capita, China is 20% bigger than the US. How many years is it going to take China to get to 20,000? Not 60 … but with the highly urbanised economy of theirs, it will take a decade, perhaps. If it gets to $20,000 US per capita, it will be 2.5 times bigger than the United States.
To which the United States says: “That is all very interesting but, look, if you behave yourselves, you Chinese, you can be a stakeholder in our system.”
And you would not have to be Xi Jinping to take the view, if you are a Chinese nationalist, “let me get this right, we are already 1.25 times bigger than you, we will soon be twice as big as you and we may be 2.5 times as big as you, but we can be a stakeholder in your system, is that it?” It would make a cat laugh.
CHINA DEBATE ‘INFORMED BY THE SPOOKS’
Australian public debate is informed by the spooks. Our foreign policy debate now in Canberra is informed by the security agencies, so you are not getting a macro view of China as it really is.
China wants its front doorstep and its front porch, that is Taiwan, its sea, it doesn’t want American naval forces influencing that. It wants access out of its coast into the deeper waters of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific. That’s what it’s about fundamentally.