Paul Keating: Australia lacks a foreign policy to negotiate the rise of China

Paul Keating at Labor's federal campaign launch in June. Photo: POOL
Paul Keating at Labor's federal campaign launch in June. Photo: POOL
Keating as prime minister at an APEC conference in Osaka in 1995. Photo: Mike Bowers

Keating as prime minister at an APEC conference in Osaka in 1995. Photo: Mike Bowers

Then Indonesian president Suharto with  Keating at the APEC meeting in Bogor, Indonesia in 1994. Photo: Mike Bowers

Then Indonesian president Suharto with Keating at the APEC meeting in Bogor, Indonesia in 1994. Photo: Mike Bowers

Paul Keating has accused Australia of lacking a foreign policy capable of negotiating the rise of China and the diminishing influence of the United States.

"Australia needs a foreign policy, and it needs it urgently. Australia does not have a foreign policy," the former prime minister told an audience in Sydney on Tuesday night.

In comments that will not escape the attention of Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and aimed at the Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull-led Coalition governments, Mr Keating said humanitarian rescues in Ukraine, like the one co-ordinated after the MH17 disaster, were "worthy" but did not amount to a calculated foreign policy.

"We both need and deserve a nuanced foreign policy which does take account of these big seismic shifts in the world. And we can't ever be caught up in some containment policy of China ... to assist the Americans in trying to preserve strategic hegemony in Asia and the Pacific.

"Strategic hegemony by the United States in the Pacific is incapable of preservation and therefore we should be urging our American friends, because they are our friends, to recognise that the US has got to move from a framing and guaranteeing role to a balancing and conciliating role."

On Friday, Mr Turnbull rejected Mr Keating's assessment, defending Ms Bishop's performance and insisting Australia's influence in the world in international terms has "never been greater".

Mr Keating was speaking to the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology headed by fellow Labor elder Bob Carr, Australia's foreign minister during the Gillard and second Rudd governments.

Mr Keating, who is a member of the advisory committee of the massive state-run China Development Bank, claimed Australia's influence in Asian diplomacy is on the wane, describing his move in the early 1990s to form the APEC Leaders Meeting and Kevin Rudd's involvement in the East Asia Summit as "gifts of foreign policy" to the region.

"I don't think the Chinese or the Americans need us to negotiate with them or between them and therefore, I think, we are becoming a much more marginal power than we even were 20 years ago," he said.

"Our aptitude and foreign policy smarts might not be waning, but our influence is waning."

Mr Turnbull disagreed that the nation's influence on the world stage was in decline.

"It has never been greater both in the region and indeed globally and that is in part due, of course, to our rising strength as an economic power, our increasing strategic commitments around the world – it is in part due to institutions like the G20 which I will be attending the meeting in Hang Zhou [in China] in a few days' time...I am meeting with the 20 largest economies in the world – that puts Australia right at the top table in the global power debate, we are there.

"I would just say it is also, our standing has been considerably enhanced by the extraordinary effectiveness of Julie Bishop as our Foreign Minister. We have had no finer foreign minister than Julie Bishop. Her advocacy and her energy has elevated our standing and our influence around the world."

Mr Keating said a useful foreign policy advancement for Australia would be to become a member of ASEAN and begin to define our security as "in Asia not from Asia", in a reference to what he described as the "Howard policy".

Commenting on the flashpoint in the South China Sea, Mr Keating said China had found a "very cheap way" to put strategic pressure on the US but was not seeking to be a "predominant, strategic world power".

"The US wants to be the primary world strategic power with control of North America, the Atlantic, the Middle East and Asia, where the Chinese are in the advantageous position of seeking only to be interested in the corner of one ocean ... which is the Pacific," he said.

"They are coming at the world in a very different way to the United States."

Mr Keating said a future Hilary Clinton presidency would be forced to divine a new relationship with China because under Barack Obama the country has been "unled in Asia".

This story Paul Keating: Australia lacks a foreign policy to negotiate the rise of China first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.