Paul Keating: Response to the Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, National Press Club, 17 April 2023

Paul Keating
Response to the Foreign Minister, Penny Wong 
National Press Club,  17 April 2023 

I never expected more than platitudes from Penny Wong’s press club speech and as it turned out, I was not disappointed.

In facing the great challenge of our time, a super-state resident in continental Asia and an itinerant naval power seeking to maintain primacy – the foreign minister was unable to nominate a single piece of strategic statecraft by Australia that would attempt a solution for both powers. 

Instead, Penny Wong actually went out of her way to turn her back on what she disparaged as ‘black and white’ binary choices, speaking platitudinally about keeping ‘the balance of power’, but having not a jot of an idea as to how this might be achieved.   

During the address she said she was ‘steadfast’ in refusing to talk about regional flashpoints; that is, refusing to talk about the very power issue which threatens the region’s viability.  She told us she will turn her back on reality, speaking only in terms of ‘lowering the heat’ and the ‘benefit from a strategic equilibrium’, without providing one clue, let alone a policy, as to how that might be achieved.  Never before has a Labor government been so bereft of policy or policy ambition.

Wong went on to eschew ‘black and white’ binary choices but then proceeded to make a choice herself - extolling the virtues of the United States, of it remaining ‘the central power’ – of ‘balancing the region’, while disparaging China as ‘intent on being China’, going on to say ‘countries don’t want to live in a closed, hierarchical region, where the rules are dictated by a single major power to suit its own interests’.  Nothing too subtle about that.  She means China and is happy to mean China. 

This is the person claiming she does not wish to make binary choices.  Yet tells us ‘we have to press for the management of great power competition’, while saying, ‘we want partners and not patriarchs’ but articulating not a jot of an idea of how that great power competition can be settled without war.    

The foreign minister went on about diplomacy needing to be backed up by military capability – capability she nominates as AUKUS, as if three nuclear submarines at sea in twenty years’ time would provide any additional effective capability. 

The minister says the advent of this AUKUS capability will ‘change the calculus for any aggressor’ – of course, meaning China.

As a middle power, Australia is now straddling a strategic divide, a divide rapidly becoming every bit as rigid as that which obtained in Europe in 1914.  Australia’s major foreign policy task is to soften that rigidity by encouraging both the United States and China to find common cause and benefit in a peaceful and prosperous Pacific.  Nothing Penny Wong said today, on Australia’s behalf, adds one iota of substance to that urgent task.

Paul Keating 
17 April 2023