Keating out of date and out of touch on Taiwan
12 Nov 2021|

On Wednesday, former Australian prime minister Paul Keating fronted the National Press Club in Canberra to present a critique of Australian foreign and defence policy and his take on the strategic outlook. He offered a characterisation of China as a great power to rival the United States, on which there can be no disagreement, and emphasised how this should be welcomed by Australia and understood as an opportunity to remake our role in the region.

Keating trod a familiar path in typically colourful terms by describing China as Australia’s national future and Britain and the US as our imperial past. This narrative has animated Australian politics for 50 years, expressing a distinctive policy and political fixation on the question of Australia’s place in the world and the idealisation of grand visions over the everyday in Australia’s international relations.

When China could be defined in straightforward terms as the world’s biggest developing economy, with its 800-million-strong middle class due to arrive by 2030, understanding China as Australia’s future was relatively straightforward. It aligned well with the export- and market-oriented political economy of which Keating himself was Australia’s main architect in the 1980s and 1990s.

In the Xi Jinping era, however, Beijing has insisted that the world take seriously its distinctive vision of Chinese socialist developmentalism and the centrality of the Chinese Communist Party and its ideology in all aspects of China’s national and international life. In Australia, this has greatly tested the vision for a future with China that has prevailed for a generation, splitting elite policy opinion for the first time in decades and prompting intense and divisive public debate.

For those, like Keating, who still hold on to a vision of a China future for Australia, reasserting its centrality in the Xi era requires ever more elaborate efforts to attenuate China’s authoritarianism and diplomatic belligerence and take increasingly tendentious positions on Beijing’s international behaviour.

This was especially visible in Keating’s comments on Taiwan in the context of China’s military activity in the Taiwan Strait. He began by saying twice that ‘Taiwan is not a vital Australian interest.’ He asserted that in the event of military conflict between China and the US, Australia had no obligation under the ANZUS Treaty to be involved and should not be. He described the promise of ‘one country, two systems’, as described by former Chinese foreign minister Qian Qichen, and suggested that Taipei and Beijing would reach a peaceful, ‘harmonious’ negotiated settlement. Questioned by a journalist, he said, ‘The whole world regards China and Taiwan as one country’ and that Beijing’s offer to Taipei is benign, even generous.

Keating is wrong on these points. On Australia’s interests, Taiwan is Australia’s 12th-largest trading partner and the two economies are highly complementary. Australia’s vital interests are in regional peace and stability, and a military crisis initiated by Beijing in the Taiwan Strait is the most critical threat to those conditions. It would be the start of a crisis that would consume the region for decades with Taiwanese resistance and leave Australia–China relations unmanageable as Australia wrestled with Beijing’s punitive policies towards Taiwan.

On ANZUS and Australia’s involvement in a US–China conflict over Taiwan, the Biden administration’s policy is clear: to deter Beijing from making a unilateral change to the status quo, with the support of US allies in the region.

Both major political parties in Taiwan reject the ‘one country, two systems’ formula for unification, and the vast majority of the Taiwanese people reject unification under any formula. In any case, ‘one country, two systems’ is not a roadmap to a cross-strait resolution; it is Beijing’s non-negotiable outcome for Taiwan.

Australia, like many countries, has a ‘one China’ policy that doesn’t recognise Taiwan as a state but only acknowledges Beijing’s position on Taiwan’s sovereignty, and certainly does nothing so simplistic as to regard the two as one country.

Although Keating’s views are wrong, they entered like a sugar rush into Australia’s mainstream and social media, and the ecology of establishment, partisan and activist opinion on relations with the US and China and on Australia’s place in the world. In a country that mythologises its prime ministers, his views have been accorded legitimacy and Keating himself performs authoritativeness. It’s notable that he detoured into a discussion of Taiwan’s former president Chen Shui-bian, who was in office from 2000 to 2008. It was a level of detail that might have appeared convincing to a generalist audience of journalists and Twitter activists unfamiliar with Chen’s presidency, but Keating’s comments were actually unintelligible.

Democracies are by definition imperfect instruments and a public discussion that includes the opinion that the security of 24 million people and the democracy they’ve built are not worth affirming in our own democratic national life highlights how a 50-year debate on Australia’s future in the region can loop on itself into an isolationist unwillingness to address the region’s biggest challenges.

At the same time, with much less attention than Keating received, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has begun the Australia–Taiwan Friendship Year to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the establishment of Australia’s representative office in Taiwan, the Australian Office. With the tagline ‘40 years, 40 stories’, the commemorative events emphasise person-to-person links, the Australian community in Taiwan and the Taiwanese community in Australia. These activities highlight how almost completely absent Taiwanese voices are in Australia’s national debate on Australia–China and Australia–Taiwan relations and on Australia’s future in the region. We have a great deal to learn from Taiwan, and if Australia is to find its place in the region, it might be time to listen rather than hold forth.