Penny Wong not intimidated by China, nor Paul Keating

The Japanese Imperial Forces had to fight their way through Asia and the Pacific to establish a base in the Solomons, from which to cut Australia off from the world. But now China can do it without firing a shot. The Morrison government was harshly judged for this blunder.


Now Keating has given his absolution to such Australian diplomatic negligence. And Wong overruled him. Australian absence from the Pacific islands only creates a void “for others to fill” she pointed out.

As for his claim that foreign policy was what you do with great powers, Wong responded: “Australia’s foreign policy, at its best, has never simply been ‘what you do with the great powers’. Countries like us need an international system that constrains power with rules.” She cited Labor foreign minister Herb Evatt, who helped shape the United Nations at its creation.

“Yet,” Wong continued, “whether Menzies or Howard, there have been those throughout Australia’s history who have thought our foreign policy should simply be to attach ourselves to a great power. Now some imply we should attach ourselves to what they anticipate will be a hegemonic China.”

This cut to the core of Keating’s policy vision of the past 30 years. He demands that Australia serve its interests by serving China’s ambitions. Wong’s rejoinder: “But the Albanese government will always be more ambitious for Australia. We will always pursue greater self-reliance and a more active foreign policy.”


But perhaps Keating’s most seductive argument is that Australia should only fear kinetic attack. He conjured the image of the Chinese military “crossing the beach” and, rightly, painted this as unrealistic.

So if that’s the only danger, we can relax, right? That’s why this is a seductive idea. Because it counsels us to complacency, and complacency is Australia’s traditional enemy.

Wong shattered this seductive invitation for Australia to do nothing. She said it was “unhelpful to narrow this discussion to the potential of kinetic conflict on our shores, when regional interests are challenged by actions that fall far short of that.

“Coercive trade measures; unsustainable lending; political interference; disinformation; and reshaping international rules, standards and norms that have benefited smaller countries, from trade to human rights – these all encroach on the ability of countries to exercise their agency, contribute to regional balance and decide their own destinies. So countries like ours in this contested region need to sharpen our focus, on what our interests are, and how to uphold them.”


And, besides, there is, again, that stark lesson of modern history. Why would any hostile power invade when, as Japan illustrated in the 1940s, you can subdue Australia by cheaper and easier means such as simply cutting it off?

Doing nothing is not an option because the new contours of power are shaping the region against Australia and its future independence. Or, as Wong put it, keeping peace and stability in the region demands continuously building a “balancing” grouping of countries to confront any potential Chinese hostility.

It demands, she said, “sufficient balance to deter aggression and coercion – balance to which more players, including Australia, must contribute if it is to be durable”. And if it is not durable, it fails, and Australian sovereign liberties fail with it.

Wong is not intimidated by a nation state as big and powerful as China. She is certainly not intimidated by its local cheerleader.

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