‘We want to avert war’: Penny Wong counters Paul Keating’s AUKUS attacks

‘We want to avert war’: Penny Wong counters Paul Keating’s AUKUS attacks

April 16, 2023

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Australia cannot rely on diplomacy alone to avoid a catastrophic war in the Asia-Pacific and needs to bolster its defence force to deter potential aggressors and promote peace in the region, according to Foreign Minister Penny Wong.

In a speech to the National Press Club on Monday, Wong will defend the strategic rationale behind the AUKUS pact after former prime minister Paul Keating savaged the government’s planned acquisition of a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines and Wong’s performance as the nation’s top diplomat in a fiery press club appearance last month.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong says Australia wants an Asia-Pacific where no one country dominates the region.Credit: James Brickwood

Wong will use the speech to outline a set of principles for how Australia can help “avert war and maintain peace, and more than that, how we shape a region that reflects our national interests and our shared regional interests”.

“By having strong defence capabilities of our own, and by working with partners investing in their own capabilities, we change the calculus for any potential aggressor,” Wong will say according to speech notes provided by her office.

“We must ensure that no state will ever conclude that the benefits of conflict outweigh the risks. This is fundamental to assuring the safety and security of our nation and our people.”

Keating used his press club appearance to deride the government’s plan to spend up to $368 billion on a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines as the “worst international decision by an Australian Labor government” since World War I, deriding both Wong and Defence Minister Richard Marles as “seriously unwise”.

In a bid to calm any lingering concerns about AUKUS in the Labor base following Keating’s intervention, Wong will say that Australia’s “foreign and defence policies are two essential and interdependent parts of how we make Australia stronger and more influential in the world”.

“And together, they make it harder for states to coerce other states against their interests through force or the threatened use of force,” she will say.

“Together, they contribute to the strategic balance of power that keeps the peace in our region.”

Wong previously said that Keating’s views on China and other foreign policy questions “belong to another time”.

Wong’s speech comes amid further signs of a thaw in the Australia-China trade relationship and a week before the government is expected to release its response to the defence strategic review, a sweeping examination of the nation’s military assets.

The government last week dropped its World Trade Organisation case against Beijing’s tariffs on Australian barley, paving the way for the restrictions to be lifted in the coming months.

Wong will say the strategic competition between China and the United States in the Asia-Pacific “is more than great power rivalry and is in fact nothing less than a contest over the way our region and our world works”.

“It’s clear to me from my travels throughout the region that countries don’t want to live in a closed, hierarchical region where the rules are dictated by a single major power to suit its own interests,” she will say.

“It is also clear that countries want a region that is peaceful and stable. And that means sufficient balance to deter aggression and coercion, balance to which more players, including Australia, must contribute if it is to be durable.

“A balance where strategic reassurance through diplomacy is supported by military deterrence.”

She will say Australia’s focus “needs to be on how we ensure our fate is not determined by others, how we ensure our decisions are our own. How we live in a region where no country dominates, and no country is dominated.”

In his first interview since the AUKUS details were announced, Navy chief Mark Hammond defended the submarine plan, telling The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age: “We are vulnerable to the interruption and disruption of sea lines of communication and seabed infrastructure, and we’ve seen both of those play out in the Ukraine conflict.

“That should bring it home to all of us that in the current deteriorating strategic environment, we need to take appropriate measures to mitigate against risks in the maritime domain in particular.”

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