Thursday 19 April 2007


Paul Keating's normally fine critical eye seems to be losing its focus with China

Paul Keating is probably John Howard’s most longstanding, vigorous and vicious critic. Sometimes his critique is more vicious than valuable. He’s amusing to listen to but you sometimes come away wondering more about Keating’s visceral hatred and bitterness than the particular issue that he is discussing.

I’m a great Keating fan. I think he was a great Prime Minister. I admired his mind, his vision and his readiness to take risks for the good of the country both as Treasurer and Prime Minister. I shook his hand at a Condell Park polling booth in the 80s and again in Vietnam in the 90s. I found him an inspiring leader. His capacity to embrace the full range of national issues from the economy to indigenous affairs, foreign policy and the arts was remarkable. He made Australia think big and broad about its past and its future.

In contrast, the Howard years have been small minded and uninspired. Howard expressed contempt for the “vision” thing from the outset and he has been true to his commitment to vision free government.

But this piece is about Keating not Howard.

And I’m starting to have some serious reservations about 21st century Keating. As a very high-end business consultant with a special interest in China, there is a sense that Keating might be losing some of his breadth of vision and appetite for risk.

Last week’s Sydney Morning Herald carried a belated story about a recent Keating speech, Banks Servicing Communities in the Context of a Burgeoning China - 26 March 2007, (available on Keating’s website). The crux of the story is Keating’s expectation that China will exercise its great power in the coming decades magnanimously.

Keating says,

It will deal through these structures (regional groupings such as ASEAN + 3) with, I believe, a great degree of maturity and regard for the nations which are party to its growth and development and central to the peace and order of the region. I believe China will adopt a quite considerate approach to the countries around it.

These words sound more like the anodyne pronouncements of China’s Foreign Ministry than those of an incisive international analyst. Keating, after broaching so many uncomfortable truths about Australia seems to be reluctant to acknowledge all the complexity that will accompany a Chinese ascendancy.

I heard similar pronouncements of unfounded optimism on China's rise some years ago from the former PM at a lecture at Sydney's Seymour Centre.

Keating’s optimism about China is far from well founded.

It is way too early to call what kind of player China will be on the international stage. The signals are mixed. To express such confidence about China’s future international posture may be good sense for Keating the business consultant, it does not seem to take account of the variable signals China is sending. It seems also to diminish a man from whom we expect to hear candour.

China’s support for the government of Sudan, in order to reap the energy dividend from the country’s oil wealth, hardly constitutes responsible or benign international citizenship. China has actively thwarted international attempts to get UN peacekeepers into Darfur. There are signs recently that China’s position here may be changing. It is too early to be sure.

In Myanmar, China’s “respect” for sovereignty has seen the establishment of a very significant economic beachhead in a country that is home to one of the planet’s most odious regimes. China’s broad economic activity in Myanmar significantly diminishes the impact of any international boycott. Arguably the contest between China and India for the affections of Burma’s rogue regime negates the strategic rationale of an economic boycott as a device for bringing political reform to the country.

In the Pacific, there is also a sense that China and Taiwan are involving themselves in local politics in ways that are not always helpful to the countries involved.

The world also continues to accept a less than enlightened position from China on Taiwan. Similar issues in other parts of the world would be resolved by referendum. Not with China. And nor does anybody in the corridors of Western foreign ministries see the need to at least suggest a democratic solution. It’s hard to imagine a similar position being adopted by the developed world in any other case – especially when Taiwan’s flourishing democracy is considered.

This is not to assume a negative view of China’s likely future position in world affairs. It is to argue that it’s too early to know - and to suggest that Mr Keating’s China interests are colouring his normally finely tuned critical eye. One can’t ignore China’s continued poor record on human rights or its current influence on world affairs when projecting a likely future role. There are definite causes for optimism – as there are causes for concern. Mr Keating can’t be expected to hector the Chinese. Nobody would benefit from that. A more measured position would be more credible. In China, measured voices calling for change are getting a hearing. Keating would be better using his enormous talents and likely influence to present something more nuanced and original than something from a Chinese Foreign Ministry template.

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