Former prime minister Paul Keating has accused the Albanese government of changing the strategic justification for nuclear-powered submarines, questioning why China would attack sea lanes vital to its economic wellbeing.
In an opinion piece published in Friday’s The Australian Financial Review, Mr Keating renewed his attack on the $368 billion venture after Defence Minister Richard Marles argued the submarines were required to protect shipping routes from blockade.
Mr Marles told parliament on Wednesday the reforms ushered in by Mr Keating and Bob Hawke had ushered in economic prosperity but left Australia more reliant on keeping global trade open.
“Our national interest and our national security extends beyond our shoreline,” Mr Marles said.
Mr Keating last week made a forceful intervention at the National Press Club to highlight his opposition to the AUKUS pact, saying China had never threatened to invade Australia and if submarines were required, the government would be better served buying 40 to 50 modern diesel-electric boats instead.
Rejecting that his outlook on security issues was antiquated, Mr Keating writes in Friday’s Financial Review the government had changed tack.
“In one week the government has gone from needing outrageously expensive nuclear submarines to weigh off a potential invasive threat from China to now, … hold it… needing them, principally, to protect our sea lanes – an altogether different issue as to scale, purpose and urgency,” Mr Keating wrote.
“In other words, Marles is implicitly arguing that Australia’s defence policy should no longer be the defence of the continent but a forward defence posture – a forward defence which would allow nuclear submarines, with their indefinite seakeeping, to attack remote targets such as threats to Singapore’s oil refineries or of course, the Chinese coast itself.
“In other words, the old 1960s forward defence policy. The policy which lured us into Vietnam – with all its heartbreak.”
Mr Keating pointed out the trading routes to be protected were “the very same sea lanes that service and fuel China’s massive material demands”.
“Marles now believes China may disrupt its own vital sea lanes simply to damage our interests on the way through!” Mr Keating wrote.
Mr Keating also took aim at Mr Marles’ claim submarines would preserve the international rules-based order, pointing out the United States has refused to sign up to the UN Convention on the Law of Sea.
“The United States invokes the ‘rules-based order’ but won’t sign up to “the rules” itself. That’s for mugs like us to do,” he said.
“It is that “hypocri-sea” that Australia’s Defence Minister, Richard Marles, is now adopting and trafficking in as an apologia for the budget-busting purpose of buying nuclear submarines.”
Mr Keating writes as Australian and Chinese defence officials had their first meeting in several years on Wednesday following the rupture in bilateral ties.
However, no commitments were made to restart joint defence exercises. Between 2015 and 2019, Australian and Chinese troops trained alongside each other in adventure race-style activities under Exercise Pandaroo.
The resumption of defence officials’ dialogue follows meetings between Mr Marles and his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe last year after Beijing lifted its freeze on ministerial contact.
“I mean, this is important because what it means is that there can be some communication between our defence forces. It reduces the scope for misunderstandings, for miscalculations, when there is an ability to talk to each other,” Mr Marles said.
Source: The Australian Financial Review