Why Keating is wrong about China

| November 16, 2021

At his speech to the National Press Club on Wednesday and in an article in the Australian Financial Review in September, former prime minister Paul Keating gave the strong impression of being a sleepwalker who has simply not caught up with today’s geopolitical reality.

Keating proclaims that China is not out to attack other countries, that it’s not a threat to Australia and that Taiwan is not a vital Australian interest. He also states that China’s recent behaviour is merely typical of any major power ‘in the adolescent phase of their diplomacy’.

Like all big states, he says, it has just become ruder as it has got bigger. He rejects any accusations that Beijing is exporting its ideology, is territorially expansionist or is a military aggressor.

Keating believes we are wasting our time seeing China as a potential military threat and that acquiring nuclear-powered attack submarines will have no strategic relevance whatsoever in deterring Beijing.

Moreover, he asserts that Australia is at odds with its own geography when, for the first time since the late 1980s, the government has instructed defence planning to focus on our immediate region, which consists of the north-eastern Indian Ocean, maritime and mainland Southeast Asia, and the southwest Pacific. This is the region where we must be able to hold a potential adversary’s forces and infrastructure at risk at a greater distance from our shores.

As to China not exporting a universal ideology, Keating is plainly out of touch with the realities of the new era in China. President Xi Jinping sees what he terms Marxism–Leninism with Chinese characteristics as a potential model for other countries, claiming the international community should view China’s methods as ‘unthreatening and constructive’. Beijing is offering its authoritarian state-capitalist Leninist system as a superior model for developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America to follow.

In the leadership’s view, liberalism and the Chinese Communist Party cannot coexist within China, and liberalism’s conception of its values as universal makes active ideological warfare a necessity for Beijing. The CCP expressed this view most directly in a 2013 document called the Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere—better known as Document 9—which warned of seven perils subverting the party’s grip on power.

Among these threats were notions of Western freedom, democracy and human rights. Xi has consistently reinforced this viewpoint in his public remarks, warning the party that ‘struggles in the ideological field are extraordinarily fierce’ and ‘although they are invisible, they are a matter of life and death’. He has spoken of a ‘treacherous international situation’ and ‘an intensifying contest of two ideologies’.

Thus, Beijing already considers itself locked in an ideological contest with the West. Xi proclaims that Western hostile forces are speeding up their ‘peaceful evolution’ and ‘colour revolution’ in China as a strategy of ‘Westernising and splitting up China overtly and covertly’.

Beijing, therefore, sees itself as engaged in a long-running ideological competition with Western liberalism as championed by the US. Nathan Levine of the Asia Society Policy Institute warns those in the West who—like Keating—do not accept the idea of a prolonged Cold War – style ideological confrontation, must recognise ideological competition with China is inescapable.

I find it deeply disturbing that not once does Keating mention China’s continuing terrible human rights record and the fact that the CCP has been responsible for the deaths of 50 million of its own people. Xi is using artificial intelligence and modern intrusive surveillance technologies to ensure absolute obedience of its citizens with the party’s every directive.

As for China not being territorially expansionist, try telling that to Tibet, Xinjiang, India and Taiwan, as well as countries such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia that border the South China Sea, which Beijing claims in its entirety. Xi lied in 2015 when he told US President Barack Obama that China would not militarise the South China Sea.

Recently, Beijing has threatened Taiwan with more than 150 jet fighters and nuclear-capable bombers flying into its air defence zone over four days. And the Global Times, which is a mouthpiece of the CCP, has threatened Australia with ballistic missile strikes with ‘conventional warheads’ if we participate in a war over Taiwan, and with nuclear attack because we are going to buy nuclear-powered submarines.

Keating asserts that Taiwan is not a vital Australian interest. But it is a vibrant democracy of 24 million people on an island. That should be a familiar geopolitical challenge for Australia. Japan sees a military threat to Taiwan as being an existential threat to its own survival, not least because of its proximity. If America fails to defend Taiwan, Japan might well consider acquiring nuclear weapons. Would that not be a matter of vital Australian interest?

Keating also claims that China is remote—12 flying hours—from the Australian coast. That is not correct. The nearest Chinese military base on Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea is barely 3,000 kilometres from Darwin. It has a 3,125-metre runway that could be used by China’s H-6N bombers to reach Australia’s north coast in less than four hours. ‘

In the last couple of years there have also been strong rumours about Beijing’s interest in establishing a military base in Vanuatu or Papua New Guinea. Defence policy advice for many years to successive Australian governments has been that the establishment of a military base by a potential adversary in the archipelago to our near north or east would be a matter of serious strategic concern that must be dealt with.

Finally, when it comes to nuclear submarines, the US leads the world while China’s submarines are noisy and its ability to detect enemy submarines is poor, especially in deep waters. When Australia eventually acquires eight nuclear-powered attack submarines, the navy would be capable of denying the narrow straits of Southeast Asia to any potential adversary.

As to criticism that the AUKUS deal for the submarines compromises Australian sovereignty, we already depend upon cutting-edge US technology—the Collins-class boats operate the US Virginia-class nuclear submarines’ combat system, which requires frequent highly classified updates. Australia is the only other country in the world to have access to this US technology.

This article was published by The Strategist.

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