‘Throwing toothpicks at the mountain’: Paul Keating says Aukus submarines plan will have no impact on China

Former Australian prime minister also says Britain ‘like an old theme park sliding into the Atlantic’ compared to modern China

The former Australian prime minister Paul Keating has denounced the US- and UK-backed plan for nuclear-powered submarines as “like throwing a handful of toothpicks at the mountain”, declaring Australia should avoid being drawn into a war with China.

The former Labor leader on Wednesday accused the major Australian political parties of losing their way on foreign policy, while dismissing the credibility of the UK’s “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific region.

“Britain is like an old theme park sliding into the Atlantic compared to modern China,” said Keating, who was Australia’s prime minister from 1991 to 1996.

Keating also played down criticism of China’s militarisation of disputed features in the South China Sea by saying “big powers are rude”, and said it would be wrong to insist the increasingly dominant economic power could be only “a stakeholder” in a US-led system.

While he said Beijing was “in the adolescent phase of their diplomacy” and had “testosterone running everywhere”, Australia had no alternative but to engage with an increasingly powerful China.

Keating was most critical of Australia’s plan to work with the US and the UK to acquire at least eight nuclear-propelled submarines, as part of the Aukus partnership, with the first of them unlikely to be in the water until about 2040.

He said Scott Morrison’s Coalition government was wrongly “trying to find our security from Asia rather than in Asia”.

The plan was all about hawkish national security advisers who “can’t wait to get the staplers back on to the Americans”, he said, adding that the submarines would not have a decisive military impact against China.

“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,” he told the National Press Club.

Keating said the Australian government had treated the French government “appallingly” over the cancellation of the $90bn deal for 12 conventionally powered submarines.

Scott Morrison with French president Emmanuel Macron in Rome.
Scott Morrison (right) with French president Emmanuel Macron in Rome. Keating said Australia had treated the French ‘appallingly’ Photograph: Prime Minister’s Office/ Adam Taylor

He also questioned whether the plans would diminish Australia’s strategic autonomy – a concern also raised by the Labor opposition. The former prime minister said if Australia were to buy American Virginia class submarines, “they’ll simply be part of the United States force directed by the United States”.

Last month, on an unofficial visit to Taipei, the conservative former prime minister Tony Abbott raised fears Beijing “could lash out disastrously very soon” at Taiwan – and argued the US and Australia could not stand idly by.

Keating said China “wants its front doorstep and front porch” – including Taiwan – but he did not believe China would launch military action unless leaders in Taipei formally declared independence.

He cited a recent speech by the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, that Beijing would try to resolve the matter harmoniously.

China regards Taiwan as a renegade province that will one day be “reunified” – by force if necessary – although the Chinese Communist party has never ruled the island.

China flew 150 warplanes into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone in the space of four days at the beginning of October, increasing pressure on the democratically governed island of 24 million people.

Keating said Australia “should not be drawn into a military engagement over Taiwan, US sponsored or otherwise” because Taiwan was “not a vital Australian interest”.

Keating argued the foreign policy debate in Australia was now driven by “the spooks” in the security agencies, and when it came to the major foreign policy choices the Coalition and Labor were “fundamentally not up to it”.

Keating takes swipe at Labor

He said the party he once led should not have been so quick to support the government’s submarine decision; it should have used the cover of the agreed 18-month study period to consider the right choice for Australia.

“Instead of that, Labor gets a briefing one night, and by 11 o’clock the next morning, they’re in the car,” he said.

He said Labor’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Penny Wong, had opted for a “reasonably quiet political life” by effectively taking the position that “there shouldn’t be an ounce of daylight between her and the Liberal party” on foreign policy.

“You have no big disputes, because you’re glued up on to the government, but you make no national progress,” he said.

Wong, who has previously backed the argument for nuclear-powered submarines but criticised the Morrison government’s handling of the announcement, declined to comment. Morrison’s office also declined to respond to Keating’s remarks.

Australia’s relationship with China, its top trading partner, has deteriorated in recent years, including over the blocking of Chinese telco Huawei from Australia’s 5G network, increasing scrutiny of foreign investment proposals, criticism of China over human rights, and the government’s early calls for a Covid-19 origins inquiry.

That worsened last year when China began blocking calls with Australian government ministers and rolled out trade actions against a range of Australian exports including coal, wine, barley and seafood. Morrison has said he won’t trade away Australia’s sovereignty or values.

Keating argued Australia could have a “civil relationship” with China even though they may disagree on a range of issues. He said Canberra should always reserve the right to speak out on human rights – including in Xinjiang in China’s west – but said it should also speak out about India’s treatment of Muslims in Kashmir.

Keating agreed China had become “more authoritarian”, but argued “it will become a more civil society than the United States”, citing America’s problems with school shootings and Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election.

He said China did “not want to command three oceans, like the United States” but was “interested in the corner of one ocean, its ocean”.

Coalition labels former PM ‘out of date’

Liberal party senator James Paterson, who chairs the Australian parliament’s security and intelligence committee, branded Keating’s assessment as “out of date”.

“The people of Taiwan can take comfort from the fact that not only does Paul Keating not speak for the government, he does not even reflect the views of the Labor party he once led,” Paterson said on Wednesday night.

“His views on China are out of date and out of touch.”


Daniel Hurst

The GuardianTramp

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