Right-Wing Provocateurs Are Trying to Drag Australia Into War With China

Paul Keating’s fiery attacks on the AUKUS nuclear-powered submarine deal last week drew attention to Australia’s uncritical support for the US in its China containment policy. This drive for war has been years in the making.

Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese (L), US president Joe Biden (C), and British prime minister Rishi Sunak (R) hold a press conference after a trilateral meeting during the AUKUS summit on March 13, 2023 in San Diego, California. (Leon Neal / Getty Images)

Australian politics is often misleadingly described as “rancorous.” To be sure, there is no lack of ill will among the Australian political elite. But there is a near-complete absence of genuine political debate.

High-profile fights are usually either cheap point-scoring in the lead-up to elections or intraparty power grabs. On the key issues the two major parties are usually in agreement, and the media generally toes the line. The situation has been no different throughout the discussions on the AUKUS nuclear-powered submarine deal with the United States and Britain.

But the bipartisan consensus found itself caught in flagrante last week when the deal’s details were announced in San Diego. Former Labor prime minister Paul Keating, in an AUKUS-centered interview at the National Press Club, attacked his own party for entering into the deal. A head-kicker from the right-wing faction of his party, famous for slinging insults, Keating lambasted the Australian government, opposition, spy agencies, and media for adopting a policy of military containment against China. AUKUS, he argued, wastes money, peels away Australia’s sovereignty, and needlessly provokes its largest trading partner.

The effect was immediate. As the media outlets that Keating mentioned personally admonished him for being old and mean, some tentative voices from across the political spectrum began to publicly question the political, military, and economic wisdom of the AUKUS deal.

Keating’s intervention exposed some of the fault lines and tensions of Australian elite politics in the twenty-first century. It’s worth examining exactly what he accused the political establishment of, what he left out, and what any revived culture of debate needs to include if the drive to war is to be stopped.

Thucydides’s Troll

Keating has been making a version of his Press Club argument for many years now. In broad terms, the argument goes that the rise of China as a genuine economic rival took the United States by surprise. Due to a too-large sense of itself, and unable to ideologically reconcile the prospect of a multipolar world, the United States now insists on trying to maintain strategic hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region. This will not work, because the People’s Republic of China will not accept it anymore. Asia is where Australia’s economic security lies, Keating argues, and the rise of China means prosperity for the nation. Rather than attempting to prop up the Americans’ doomed endeavor, Australia should encourage them to adapt to the new reality.

This is unlikely, however, as Australia has “screwed into place the last shackle in the long chain which the Americans have laid out to contain China,” he said. It’s a handcuff tying Australia to US imperial policy for the foreseeable future, with potentially deadly consequences.

The Press Club interview threw some behind-the-scenes scandal into the mix. Australia’s foreign policy, Keating claimed, has been commandeered by “a pro-American cell,” and the government now “dances to the tune” of spy agency “provocateurs.” Not only is this extremely dangerous, he argued, but completely undemocratic. As Keating put it,

We are in the ambit of the US strategic command system. We’ve turned the place out. We don’t run the place anymore.

Cheerleading all this, he added, are pro-US media organizations like the Nine Entertainment group, Sky News, and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) think tank.

“We’ve Turned the Place Out”

Keating argues that the AUKUS deal is just the latest step in “turning the place out.” But the previous steps require some explanation.

Australia entered into the Australia, New Zealand, and United States Security Treaty (ANZUS) in 1951 as a junior partner to the United States. It was required to back US Cold War military operations when ordered to, and in the late 1960s was compelled to host a US military surveillance facility (Pine Gap) that directs spy satellites flying over China. For its enthusiasm, Australia was rewarded by not being allowed to join high-level strategy discussions, and was privately mocked and derided by US ambassadors.

Any time an Australian leader has even hinted at developing a degree of independence, the United States has stepped in. Gough Whitlam — who visited China as leader of the opposition in 1971 and established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic instantly upon becoming prime minister in 1972 — was deemed a security risk to Australia and removed from office. Apart from his criticisms of US involvement in Vietnam, his main crimes were threatening to expose CIA operations in Pine Gap.

Even when prime ministers fully support the existing military alliance, the United States will brook no unpredictability. The United States also had former prime minister Kevin Rudd removed from office, despite him encouraging the country to use force against China and its own acknowledgement that he was not a “panda hugger.” His independent diplomatic efforts in the Asia-Pacific simply did not tie in smoothly enough with the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia.” As Wikileaks files revealed, a group of Labor Party “faceless men” reporting to the US embassy conspired to remove him from office. His US-approved replacement, Julia Gillard, soon stood next to Obama and announced that US troops would be stationed in Darwin.

As a former CIA agent who helped establish Pine Gap explained in the 1970s, “so long as Australians keep electing the right people then there’ll be a stable relationship between the two countries.” Sovereignty this is not.

With Friends Like These . . .

Keating used the catchall term “provocateurs” to describe the voices pushing AUKUS. It’s worth breaking down who he means, and what role they’re playing.

The most familiar to ordinary people will be the powerful media figures preparing the ground for war. The Nine Entertainment group, and the Sydney Morning Herald in particular, came under fire from Keating for a recent hysterical campaign. The Murdoch media empire also falls squarely into this camp. Commentators from Sky News and the Australian rant and rail about China on a daily basis, and the Murdoch family just unveiled a new center for its seventy-five-year-old American Australian Association in New York City. The association’s sole function is to promote the military alliance.

Less well known is the right-wing think tank ASPI. This was founded in 2001 by the Australian Department of Defence, in order to shore up support for the various military misadventures into which the United States would soon drag Australia. ASPI is consistently anti-China, but this can sometimes come back to bite it. In 2017–18, an anti–Chinese influence witch hunt saw fifteen politicians (who were not connected with China) expelled from parliament. Soon after, ASPI lobbied for the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act in an effort to counter “foreign influence” in Australian politics. After the legislation passed, however, it exposed that ASPI itself was foreign funded — by the US State Department, Japan, Taiwan, Lockheed Martin, and other multinational weapons companies. ASPI now campaigns against the scheme’s “country agnosticism” — arguing that only Chinese influence should be mandatorily reported.

Also drumming for war is the group of ex-military and intelligence personnel now serving in the Australian Parliament and other positions of power. Keating singled out elite society figure and Office of National Intelligence director-general Andrew Shearer, but there are others that might be mentioned, including MPs Peter Khalil and Andrew Hastie, Senator Jim Molan (until his recent death), and Governor-General David Hurley — all of whom forged their careers in the forever wars. With the exception of Hurley, whose role requires extra diplomacy, they are deliberately provocative. Hastie and Khalil have publicly compared China to the Nazis. All argue that the United States should defend its domination of Asia.

Beyond just being inflammatory, their argument is quite weird. Shearer has called the idea of independent foreign policy a “vacuous slogan,” and said that

The national interest is our lodestar when it comes to weighing closer co-operation with our allies. But neither should we allow ourselves to be intimidated into compromising our fundamental national security choices or values through the threat of economic payback.

Similarly, Molan criticized those who highlight China’s economic boon to Australia, arguing that “the markets make us prosperous but they’ll never make us secure.” The US containment strategy, therefore, must be supported, even though

We could be dumped by the US. . . . in my view we will get very little help should there be a significant war because their hands will be full. . . . if we look at the last time we faced similar challenges, Prime Minister Churchill was more than happy to sacrifice Australia. The imperial strategy that we were subservient to was a farce.

They seem to be arguing that Australia must help the United States contain China even though the economic consequences could be dire, and the United States will probably not help Australia militarily in return. It’s hard to see what could go wrong.

These provocateurs also claim or imply that prominent sectors of Australian society — certain big businesses, universities, and some politicians — have been bought by China and are acting as either useful idiots or an actual fifth column. This accusation is no doubt what rankled Keating so badly. It hits him on two aspects of his legacy.

Firstly, it implies that he is actually in the employ of the Chinese state (he isn’t). Secondly, it suggests that his privatizations of the 1990s were a mistake. China outright owns or co-owns every major privatized port in Australia, and dominates Asian sea routes through its Ocean Alliance consortium. The provocateurs suggest that China will take advantage of this during a military confrontation.

Having Their Cake and Eating It Too

Despite veiled allusions to treachery, big business has been polite about AUKUS. A quick glance at Australia’s rich list makes it clear that most won big during the resource boom sparked by China’s industrialization in the 2000s, or are benefiting from China’s tech expansion. But they never let crises go to waste, and are hedging on future conflict with China.

Metals industry billionaire Andrew Forrest might have begged the hawks not to “poke China in the eye,” but he’s also eyeing the AUKUS submarine shipbuilding contracts, and setting up a nice little shipping empire to potentially profit from conflict in the region. The richest Australian, Gina Rinehart, who does a roaring trade with China, has pitched mining as crucial for defense. She’s also taken up some of the war hawks’ less antagonistic talking points, such as self-sufficiency in medicines. But hers is a far more complimentary kind of alarmism, claiming that

China is led by terribly intelligent people and they do see things at a further distance and more in the future than what we do.

The only top billionaire to openly side with the provocateurs is Visy’s Anthony Pratt. He cofounded Murdoch’s new anti-China center in New York last week, and reaffirmed his view that “Australia’s relationship with America is our most important, and it’s never been stronger or closer thanks to organizations like this.” Pratt’s open ANZUS patriotism, however, can be easily explained by his multibillion dollar manufacturing interests in the United States, and doesn’t speak to any wider mood among the top tier of society.

It’s also important to note that for all the hype around the rise of China, the Australian economy is still deliberately intertwined with that of the United States. Total US investment in Australia is around $1 trillion, and most companies on the Australian stock exchange are dominated by US capital. For all the hawks’ talk of self-sufficiency, the US–Australia relationship keeps the junior partner from developing its manufacturing, and reliant on the importation of advanced goods such as medical instruments and civil engineering machinery from the United States.

The Last Shackle

Keating, despite his neoliberal credentials, has now positioned himself to the radical side of the Labor leadership. He has acerbically painted himself as a skillful freethinker (“I had Clinton playing the saxophone and Jiang Zemin doing karaoke”) and current prime minister Anthony Albanese as a craven sycophant (“at the kabuki show in San Diego there’s three leaders standing there but only one is paying: our bloke!”).

But in expressing his contempt for the so-called representatives of the Labor left, he admitted that as prime minister in the 1990s, he dutifully carried out US demands, saying that,

I’ve fought the left most of my life, mostly on behalf of the United States. . . . what Albanese and [Minister of Foreign Affairs Penny] Wong have done essentially is accommodated the strategic wishes of the United States uncritically. . . . We were like Bolsheviks compared to them.

It is indeed a sad indictment of the state of public debate that it took an establishment figure like Keating to provoke the barest of antiwar discussions. It’s now the job of the Left to turn this momentum into something bigger.