Opinion: AUKUS angst runs silent but deep

Photo by Jonas Allert on Unsplash
Sunday 19 March 2023

By Mark Kenny

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

Given the full-court-press of press indignation last week, it almost escaped notice that some well credentialed strategic policy minds agreed with Paul Keating's core concerns over AUKUS.

This, they hasten to add, is quite separate from endorsing any intemperate remarks he made about the senior-most figures in the government.

Nonetheless, it was a sign of the intellectual thinness of the pro-AUKUS consensus across a media at one with the defence establishment, that the real fizz of reporting since Wednesday's National Press Club appearance, centred on the ad hominem aspects of Keating's presentation.

His "friendly fire" at Anthony Albanese, Penny Wong, and Richard Marles, was unbecoming and in the end, counterproductive.

As usual, media were happy to oblige. Happy to invite the very controversy they would immediately moralise against.

The National Press Club invited the former PM fully aware of his trenchant opposition to AUKUS.

Indeed, that was the point. And quite correctly, too. Keating is a compelling and authoritative public figure - among the most panoramic, persuasive, and courageous policy thinkers the federal parliament has produced.

It is this policy depth, spiced with his legendary facility for the verbal Exocet missile, which has always made him good copy.

And, as Keating himself might have said, given the widely lauded AUKUS pivot, this is a debate we had to have. For an alliance with colossal strategic and budgetary implications, public discussion has been unhealthily absent. AUKUS has sparked surprisingly few parliamentary mentions, no major parliamentary debate, and brought no disagreement either across the big party divide, or within them.

Just days ago, Tony Abbott called Labor's spotless delivery of the Morrison government's inchoate nuclear ambitions "a brilliant plan, bi-partisan across three countries, that all but guarantees it will happen".

It is remarkable then, that the Labor Left has so meekly accepted a switch to nuclear unveiled by Morrison and adopted by Labor without debate.

Even more so, considering the perceived risk of incorporation of Australia's foreign and security policy apparatus into America's hardening Indo-Pacific goals.

Remember, the US position on Taiwan is "strategic ambiguity" - a very deliberate vagueness as to Washington's response to a Chinese mainland invasion.

But Joe Biden has unhelpfully delivered clarity several times now saying America would defend Taipei.

Under AUKUS, this specificity also clarifies Australia's position by implication, but without our say-so.

That's quite a bet in a region in which we live and America simply does not.

Recall Peter Dutton saying in late 2021, that "it would be inconceivable that we wouldn't support the US in an action (in Taiwan) if the US chose to take that action".

This gives the usual complaint of "sleepwalking towards war" a whole new meaning.

Here, Keating's critique is most salient. He argues the less manoeuvrable American Virginia class attack submarines are unnecessary for our own security, ruinously unaffordable, and worse, inveigle Australia into Washington's galloping cold war with Beijing.

Further, that the domestic premise on which they are justified, namely that of an imminent Chinese threat to Australia, is both exaggerated and better met through greater defensive self-reliance using, inter alia, conventional submarines operating closer to home.

Even if Keating's conceptualisation of the threat relies too narrowly on a land-based invasion, these constitute serious discussion points.

It might seem ironic that former PMs are expected to behave like submarines themselves.

That is, to "run silent, run deep" in the words of the 1958 Clark Gable submarine film, returning to port only for Naval parades and open days, AKA election campaign launches.

Labor's umbrage at Keating's unauthorised "emergency action messages" is therefore predictable. His personal attacks merely gave ministers the license to say so openly.

But media? Should journalists display such reticence to ventilate substantive counterpoints in such a critical policy switch?

Are we well served if reporters, perhaps flattered by special security briefings and privileged insider access, underplay a serious alternative critique?

"Although I wouldn't use Paul Keating's language, I think his concern is correct," said ANU Professor Hugh White, arguably Australia's pre-eminent strategic and defence policy intellectual.

White said it was "a bit rich" that government members say Keating doesn't understand how the world has changed because "it is they who don't understand" that the power dynamics in the region have shifted fundamentally. "They still think that America is the dominant power in East Asia and is going to remain so forever," he said.

White's argument demands attention. Under AUKUS, Australia has returned to the Anglosphere all but abandoning the notion of security "in" Asia, in search of protection "from" Asia.

Without a full public discussion, Australia has chosen a side and it may actually make our participation in a subsequent conflict more likely, rather than less.

Is that well understood?

"A war between America and China over Taiwan would be world war three," White told me.

"It would be ... the biggest war the world has seen since 1945 and it would have a very good chance of being a nuclear war," before adding "there is no reason to expect America to win in a war with China over Taiwan".

While Keating unwisely went personal, that should not be an excuse for AUKUS spruikers to do the same to him, to ignore his core arguments while dog-whistling about his age and questioning his grasp on the contemporary world.

Yes, he left parliament 27 years ago but that is irrelevant. Besides, he is still younger than Biden.

Mark Kenny is a professor at the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast.

Updated:  20 March 2023/Responsible Officer:  Institute Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications