Penny Wong is not intimidated by China, nor its local cheerleader

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Paul Keating was not the main target of Penny Wong’s appearance at the National Press Club yesterday. But she hit him anyway. He left her no choice. After he insulted and ridiculed her in his own appearance at the National Press Club a month ago, Wong had to do three things to establish a footing.

First, Australia’s most senior female officeholder had to demonstrate that she would not be intimidated by the former prime minister’s bullying. Second, the leader of the government in the Senate had to establish that the Albanese administration would be governing for this century, not the last. Third, Australia’s foreign affairs minister needed to show the world that Australia has a purposeful foreign policy, and that it bears no resemblance to anything Keating said.

Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong addresses the National Press Club on Monday.Credit: AAP

In doing so, Wong was as classy as Keating was crass, as clear-eyed as he was wild-eyed, as constructive as he was destructive. She didn’t refer to him by name until asked a direct question by a reporter, and even then she called him “Mr Keating”.

Once asked about him, her only direct comment was to say that “in tone and in substance, he diminished both his legacy and the subject matter”. In sum, Wong’s attitude to Keating was the one she adopts in dealing with foreign countries – “respecting but not deferring to others”.

More importantly than the footing were the fundamentals. The foreign affairs minister had to debunk his policy prescriptions. Without naming him, she dismantled three of Keating’s central concepts.

In his performance, Keating said: “Running around the Pacific islands with a lei around your neck handing out money, which is what Penny does, is not foreign policy. It’s a consular task, fundamentally. Foreign policy is what you do with the great powers. What you do with China, what you do with the US.”

Former prime minister Paul Keating at the National Press Club in March.

Wong ignored the personal insult and responded with two points. One, the Pacific, she said: “Anyone who questions the strategic importance of the Pacific islands to Australia’s security needs only acquire the briefest familiarity with history,” an allusion to World War II. “While our strategic circumstances have changed in the last 50 years, our geography has not, and nor has the centrality of the Pacific to our own security.”

It was only last year that Australia was shocked when Solomon Islands signed a security agreement with Beijing. This opened the way for China potentially to bring its nearest military base, currently 6000 kilometres from our shores, to within 1500 kilometres.

The Japanese Imperial Forces had to fight their way through Asia and the Pacific to establish a base in the Solomons, from which to cut Australia off from the world. But now China can do it without firing a shot. The Morrison government was harshly judged for this blunder.

Now Keating has given his absolution to such Australian diplomatic negligence. And Wong overruled him. Australian absence from the Pacific islands only creates a void “for others to fill” she pointed out.

As for his claim that foreign policy was what you do with great powers, Wong responded: “Australia’s foreign policy, at its best, has never simply been ‘what you do with the great powers’. Countries like us need an international system that constrains power with rules.” She cited Labor foreign minister Herb Evatt, who helped shape the United Nations at its creation.

“Yet,” Wong continued, “whether Menzies or Howard, there have been those throughout Australia’s history who have thought our foreign policy should simply be to attach ourselves to a great power. Now some imply we should attach ourselves to what they anticipate will be a hegemonic China.”

This cut to the core of Keating’s policy vision of the past 30 years. He demands that Australia serve its interests by serving China’s ambitions. Wong’s rejoinder: “But the Albanese government will always be more ambitious for Australia. We will always pursue greater self-reliance and a more active foreign policy.”

But perhaps Keating’s most seductive argument is that Australia should only fear kinetic attack. He conjured the image of the Chinese military “crossing the beach” and, rightly, painted this as unrealistic.

So if that’s the only danger, we can relax, right? That’s why this is a seductive idea. Because it counsels us to complacency, and complacency is Australia’s traditional enemy.

Wong shattered this seductive invitation for Australia to do nothing. She said it was “unhelpful to narrow this discussion to the potential of kinetic conflict on our shores, when regional interests are challenged by actions that fall far short of that.

“Coercive trade measures; unsustainable lending; political interference; disinformation; and reshaping international rules, standards and norms that have benefited smaller countries, from trade to human rights – these all encroach on the ability of countries to exercise their agency, contribute to regional balance and decide their own destinies. So countries like ours in this contested region need to sharpen our focus, on what our interests are, and how to uphold them.”

And, besides, there is, again, that stark lesson of modern history. Why would any hostile power invade when, as Japan illustrated in the 1940s, you can subdue Australia by cheaper and easier means such as simply cutting it off?

Doing nothing is not an option because the new contours of power are shaping the region against Australia and its future independence. Or, as Wong put it, keeping peace and stability in the region demands continuously building a “balancing” grouping of countries to confront any potential Chinese hostility.

It demands, she said, “sufficient balance to deter aggression and coercion – balance to which more players, including Australia, must contribute if it is to be durable”. And if it is not durable, it fails, and Australian sovereign liberties fail with it.

Wong is not intimidated by a nation state as big and powerful as China. She is certainly not intimidated by its local cheerleader.

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