HomeJoe Hildebrand: The eye-watering irony of Paul Keating comments on China

Joe Hildebrand: The eye-watering irony of Paul Keating comments on China

Paul Keating’s one-liners were brilliant this week, as they always are, but one comment in particular betrayed the dark stain on Labor’s soul.

The great thing about Paul Keating’s interventions into the national debate is that they are always spectacularly entertaining — even when they are spectacularly wrong.

And the former PM’s blistering attack on Australia’s relationship with China at the National Press Club this week was both.

Keating’s one-liners were brilliant, as they always are, but one comment in particular betrayed the dark stain on Labor’s soul that the party is desperate to forget — and which many have apparently managed to.

This was his unilateral write-off of Taiwan’s right to exist — which, in true PJK style, he threw down like a full-house.

“Taiwan is not a vital Australian interest. We have no alliance with Taipei, none,” he said. “We do not recognise it as a sovereign state.”

The eye-watering irony of this statement is that the only reason Australia and other countries don’t recognise Taiwan is precisely because of fear of Chinese aggression.

In other words the argument is a self-fulfilling closed loop: We shouldn’t defend Taiwan because we don’t have a relationship with it, and we don’t have a relationship with it because we don’t want to defend it.

To put the most generous possible pragmatic spin on this position, it is that Taiwan has nothing to do with us and that there is nothing we could do about it even if it did.

Of course Mr Keating is the great pragmatist and of course he is right that Australia can’t run around getting into conflicts which are none of our business or — more to the point — in which we are hopelessly outgunned.

But pragmatism also means dealing with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be.

Are we really to believe that if China were to invade Taiwan Australia could simply say and do nothing?

Does Mr Keating really think that if our greatest ally the US asked for assistance in defending Taiwan that we could simply refuse and expect the alliance to survive?

Or that if we did turn a blind eye to China invading Taiwan, and torch our relationship with the US, that Beijing would become our best mate in Washington’s place?

And if so, whose side would we be on in this hypothetical conflict between the two global superpowers? Or would we just be all on our own like a Pacific Switzerland?

Suddenly this pragmatism looks a lot more like naivete. Indeed, Mr Keating’s concept of China seems to still be the more benign, increasingly liberalising, more openly engaging country it was when he was PM rather than the more belligerent, increasingly authoritarian, aggressively expansionist power it is today.

He characterises this as a testosterone-fuelled phase of geopolitical adolescence that will inevitably subside, but that again seems to be the nostalgia of a former leader assuming that the world’s default position is the time they remember best.

Labor’s future leaders have a very different take. As Mr Keating was batting aside concerns, the young AWU assistant national secretary Misha Zelinsky — a Fulbright Scholar who is also the secretary of the National Policy Forum and Chair of the NSW Foreign Policy Committee — wrote a compelling and clear-eyed column for The Australian Financial Review noting that far from mellowing, Xi Jinping is displaying increasing paranoia and only strengthening his ambitions and tightening his grip on power.

Let’s not forget the bloke just effectively appointed himself dictator for life.

I should also probably declare that Mr Zelinsky and I are mates, having bonded over the fact that our favourite prime minister was Paul Keating.

And this brings us to the last time Labor brought a similar policy to bear.

It wasn’t so long ago that another Asian giant to our north invaded a smaller country as part of a nationalist expansionist agenda.

In the dying dysfunctional days of the Whitlam government, the dictatorship of Indonesia invaded the tiny nation of East Timor, leading to the deaths of some 200,000 Timorese civilians as well as five Australian journalists.

Not only did Mr Whitlam turn a blind eye to the invasion, he condoned it.

In 1991, around 250 protesters were shot in what became known as the Dili Massacre. This too was dismissed as an “aberration” by the then Hawke government and when Mr Keating became PM later that year the first country he visited was Indonesia. And in 1995, Australia and Indonesia signed a sweet little security pact.

East Timor had been subjected to the most brutal and horrific oppression by Jakarta but Canberra cosied up to the oppressor because it was assumed there was nothing we could do.

But we were wrong. Less than five years later the Howard government managed to facilitate the independence of East Timor, using Mr Howard’s own wily pragmatism combined with a dash of moral courage.

There is still a deafening silence in the Labor Party on what it did to East Timor. And that silence is the echo of what Mr Keating says about China today.

I still love Paul Keating, I still love the Labor Party and I still love pragmatism. But pragmatism only has a purpose if it is directed towards an ultimate greater good.

Otherwise it’s just plain old cowardice.

Read related topics:China


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