Everybody knows you never go full Evatt
The Chinese Communist Party’s most outspoken adviser, Paul Keating, is in the news again for doing what he nowadays seems to do best: trashing the West for Beijing. Ignoring the crimes of the world’s biggest prison state, the China Development Bank consigliere has dismissed the United States as yesterday’s superpower and again attacked Australian intelligence agencies. Interestingly, his speech on Monday at the Australian Strategic Forum (transcript) attracted none of the “foreign influence” concerns the Attorney-General’s department exhibited in relation to the CPAC gathering addressed by Tony Abbott in August. In addition to scarifying intelligence officials for being on guard against escalating Chinese espionage, Mr Keating charged them (without any evidence) of making spy-thriller information “drops” to reporters. He also accused the Morrison government and “do-gooder journalists” of a conspiracy to calumniate China in the eyes of the public. “The media has been up to its ears in it,” he claimed. And still they applaud.
You don’t have to be a national security fusspot to see such words – from a former prime minister, no less – as both treacherous and unhinged. Ridiculing the incumbent government; criticising a free press for its interest in Chinese subversion; accusing ASIO and allied agencies of wilfully corrupting foreign policy out of malice. This demonology is a temperamental amalgam of H.V. Evatt on Molotov, Lionel Murphy on spooks and Gough Whitlam on Mao. Dr Evatt predominates in the mix. Mr Keating Potemkinises a totalitarian state, bolsters its mythical unstoppable-force supremacism and limits Australia to forelock-tugging. Ironically, the latter was one of Mr Keating’s favourite insults in the 1980s when he mocked the Liberal Party’s fealty to Britain – despite Sir Robert Menzies having inaugurated the “Asia pivot” when Mr Keating was still in short pants.
Machiavelli for thee but not for me
A closer reading of the Keating speech reveals the flaws we’ve come to expect from the Bankstown boy-turned Talleyrand. This, for example, is what happens when an autodidact wanders into a conference without Don Watson: “I think it is true to say the US remains the most ideological major society on earth.” Translation: Americans still believe in freedom. He continues: “On the other hand, China’s historical view is not rooted in ideological aspiration, universal or otherwise.” On the contrary: China’s worldview certainly is rooted. For 70 years Chinese communists have acted pursuant to a colonising and depraved ideology. Entirely absent from Mr Keating’s remarks is any moral architecture to international affairs in the age of China’s rise. That, to him, is a feature rather than a bug because the true theme of his speech is that China now has a right to exercise ruthless realpolitic but the rest of the world no longer does. America and the democracies have no objectively certain moral standing above a tyrannical rogue state that kills its own citizens.
Damning the President with high praise
Many who read reports of his speech were probably surprised by Mr Keating’s high praise for Donald Trump but the thing is, it wasn’t praise for sagacity but for an imaginary capitulation. The President, you see, has “no appetite for a military skirmish with China.” This symbolises for Mr Keating that the US has given up on Pax Americana and reverted to the Founding Fathers’ isolationist foreign policy. It is not only disingenuous to imply any recent President has contemplated a hot war with China, it is fatuous to claim Trump’s triangulation of anti-Russian and war-mongering zealots in the Democratic Party and State Department represents the end of any global order. Isolationism was put aside for Wilsonian idealism earlier in the twentieth century, by anti-communist hawks and then neo-cons in the later century and Bushian fin de siècle.
The point is US foreign policy evolves to meet challenges and many of these will continue to be what Donald Rumsfeld called “unknown unknowns.” Sinophiles should put their pom-poms away in the attic trunk along with those old VHS tapes of Japan-ascending classics, Black Rain and Rising Sun. One of the biggest unknown unknowns is which party wins the White House (and why) in the course of the next 1oo years. Which brings us to the most contemptible cowardice in Mr Keating’s vision. “And let’s not get too starry-eyed about so-called democracies,” he says. “God help us if we are limited or slated to deal only with democracies.” No, Mr Keating. God help us if we are doomed to deal only with police states like China. On that subject, David Crowe notes that “Mr Keating made no reference to Xinjiang or Hong Kong in his speech.” A wannabe hyperpower whose spokesmen are this amoral doesn’t have an uncomplicatedly bright future.