Former prime minister Paul Keating thinks Australia has lost its way in the region and is foolish to seek a new submarine deal to contain China’s military efforts.
In a scathing critique of Australia’s foreign and defence policy, the former Labor leader said the decision to work with the United States and United Kingdom on nuclear-powered submarines was “like throwing a handful of toothpicks at a mountain”.
He likened the deal – which came under the auspices of the new AUKUS pact – to “buying an old 747”, saying the most obvious choice would have been a French boat which used more modern technology.
Mr Keating, who led Australia between 1991 and 1996, warned the country had “lost its way” in the region and needed to acknowledge China’s pre-eminence.
“I am back to talk about what I see as a deterioration in our strategic setting,” he told the National Press Club on Wednesday.
“The country is now very much at odds with its geography and it has lost its way. We are still trying to find our security from Asia rather than in Asia.”
Mr Keating warned Australia could not afford to wait for US Virginia-class nuclear-propelled vessels that would be antiquated when they arrived in the 2040s or 50s.
“We’re going to have to rapidly rebuild the Collins class, the existing submarines, but also build another class of conventional Australian submarines,” he said.
“We ought to … go back to the French and say, ‘Let’s have another look at your modern low-enriched nuclear submarines’.”
Mr Keating argued China’s socio-economic assent had no modern precedent, and it was not seeking to overturn the world order but reform it.
“They are in the adolescent phase of their diplomacy.They have testosterone running everywhere, the Chinese,” he said.
“But we have to deal with them because their power will be so profound in this part of the world.”
The signing of the AUKUS deal further inflamed trade tensions with China, which has already rejected Australian coal, barely, beef, lobster, timber and wine imports.
Mr Keating wants to see the return of a “sensible” relationship with China and doesn’t think Australia should trouble itself too much with tensions involving Taiwan.
“Taiwan is not a vital Australian interest … we have no alliance with Taipei,” he said.
Mr Keating also maintained Australia should reserve the right to speak out on human rights concerns.
“You can speak powerfully about the rights of citizens in this countries, but that can’t be the whole conversation,” he said.