Paul Keating’s AUKUS Criticisms Tap Into Australian Backlash on Nuclear Submarine Deal
Even among Australia’s roll call of opinionated former prime ministers, Paul Keating stands out—not least for his unmatched ability to dress down those who oppose him. But few thought he would ever turn this skill on his own political party, the Australian Labor Party, which finally seized government in 2022 after a decade in the wilderness. That was until last week, when Keating publicly condemned the AUKUS defense pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese for signing it.
That tripartite deal, details of which were announced with fanfare just two days earlier, was “the worst international decision by an Australian Labor government” since conscription was attempted during World War I, Keating said during an appearance at Australia’s National Press Club. The decision to purchase nuclear-powered submarines—at a cost of up to 368 billion Australian dollars ($245 billion)—would invariably draw Australia into any potential conflict between the United States and China, he warned.
No words were minced: “Signing the country up to the foreign proclivities of another country—the United States, with the gormless Brits, in their desperate search for relevance, lunging along behind is not a pretty sight.”
Another former prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull of the Liberal Party, also chimed in with concerns, though he put them slightly more delicately. What would the hundreds, if not thousands, of Australians trained up on nuclear technology do once they finished their military service, given the country has no nuclear industry? Turnbull asked. Viability was an open question, too, in light of Britain’s economic woes: “Is Britain going to be financially strong enough to be our partner in a submarine project of this significance?”
More gravely, though, Turnbull has questioned whether the use of U.S. submarines—employed as a stopgap until British-designed, Australian-built subs are complete—could compromise Australia’s sovereignty. “Can they be operated, sustained, and maintained by Australia without the support or supervision of the U.S. Navy?” he asked last month.
Sam Roggeveen, the director of the international security program at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, told Foreign Policy that his sovereignty concerns regarding AUKUS stretch beyond personnel. “When you build a weapon system that is almost specifically designed to operate thousands of kilometers to our north, and which is perfectly suited to fighting a military campaign against China,” he said, “then at the final moment when the call comes from the White House—‘Will you take part in this war, or won’t you?’—it will be very difficult, almost impossible, for Australia to say no.”
During this U.S. administration and the last, Roggeveen said, China was clearly becoming “the core strategic threat around which America organizes its foreign policy and its defense policy.” Should this relationship continue to devolve, AUKUS could prove “very dangerous” to Australia, dragging the country into a conflict between the two great powers. Ultimately, more debate was needed about the deal, he said, particularly because Australia will bear all of its cost and risk.
In the wake of Keating’s salvo, some in the media, and in politics, dismissed his assessment of China as dated—a benign view that may have been accurate in the early 1990s, when he was prime minister, but no longer held. Others questioned whether his time as chairman of the international advisory board of the China Development Bank—a post he left in 2018—had distorted his opinion of the Chinese Communist Party. Indeed, just days after he dismissed AUKUS as unnecessary, Chinese President Xi Jinping traveled to Moscow to hold friendly talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court.
“[Keating’s] claim that China is no threat is untenable,” said Chris Wallace, a political historian and professor at the University of Canberra. “But the idea [that] China is a dire impending threat, as some [Scott] Morrison hangovers still serving in the national intelligence community and security-related parts of the public service contend, is also ill-founded.”
Amid all of Keating’s colorful insults, this seemed to be his core argument: that the threat posed to Australia by China has not been articulated by the government. Nor has it explained how the AUKUS deal would address that amorphous threat.
Turnbull’s preferred path would be for Australia to instead purchase submarines from France, a deal he first struck as prime minister, which was shredded when Prime Minister Scott Morrison chose in 2021 to instead pursue AUKUS. That decision infuriated France, leading to a temporary recall of its ambassadors to Australia and the United States.
Asked at the G-20 summit in October 2021 whether Morrison lied to him regarding the submarines’ fate, French President Emmanuel Macron’s frank assessment made headlines around the world: “I don’t think, I know.” But even then, in opposition, Labor endorsed the deal—leaving no daylight between itself and the country’s conservative Liberal Party on defense policy.
This was not always the case. For decades, Labor opposed Australia becoming involved in international conflicts—from the Vietnam War to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. During Keating’s prime ministership, from 1991 to 1996, fostering relations with China was a key priority, led by a view that Australia’s future was in Asia. In the decades since, the two nations have become even more closely intertwined—China is Australia’s largest trading partner, by far, and nearly 1.4 million Australians have Chinese ancestry, according to the latest census.
If Keating hoped his AUKUS broadside would shake loose some sort of justification for the deal from the Labor government, none was forthcoming. Instead, it was his stinging criticisms of Albanese, whom he painted as a “befuddled” leader who’d failed to do due diligence on AUKUS, that made front-page news.
As did his comments about Foreign Minister Penny Wong, who has been keenly focused on repairing Australia’s relationships with its Pacific neighbors. “Running around the Pacific islands with a lei around your neck handing out money, which is what Penny does, is not foreign policy,” Keating said. “Foreign policy is what you do with the great powers.”
Albanese, for his part, responded only by saying that Keating was “entitled to put his opinion. … My responsibility in 2023 is to give Australia the leadership that they need now, not what they might have needed in the 1990s.”
What Keating’s scathing assessment did do, however, was draw out other Labor heavyweights who’ve since questioned AUKUS—including former Foreign Ministers Gareth Evans and Bob Carr and former cabinet ministers Peter Garrett and Kim Carr. “Given it’s 20 years since Iraq, you can hardly say our security agencies should not be questioned when they provide their assessments,” the latter told Nine newspapers.
“Many rank-and-file [Labor] members would and do agree with Keating’s criticism, if not all aspects of his argument,” Wallace said. And some local branches, the bedrock of the party, have recently been pushing back against the deal.
Similarly, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which was founded in Australia in 2007, warned that AUKUS posed “both a major proliferation risk and could be seen as a precursor to Australia acquiring nuclear weapons.” The organization said the purpose of the submarines was, clearly, “to support the [United States] in a war in northeast Asia. Whether with China, North Korea or Russia, there is an alarming risk of any such war escalating to use of nuclear weapons.”
Recent polling suggests the Australian people may also be coming around to Keating’s point of view. Leading pollster Essential found this month that the public’s belief that AUKUS would make Australia more secure has fallen to just 40 percent, down from 45 percent when the pact was first announced back in 2021. On the question of the nuclear-powered submarines in particular, Essential reported that 55 percent of people surveyed either thought the purchase was unnecessary or too expensive.
Roggeveen of the Lowy Institute doesn’t blanch at the price tag as much as others have, given the cost is over 30 years. “It’s just a question of opportunity costs,” he said. “What else could we be doing with the money?”
In his view, “Australia’s single biggest defense asset is distance. … Beijing is closer to Berlin than it is to Sydney.” As such, buying long-range submarines that effectively compress that distance, rather than investing in military capabilities that exploit it—such as shorter-range submarines and air power to defend the country’s north—was difficult to justify.
On Friday, Keating wrote an op-ed for the Australian Financial Review lambasting the government’s attempts, since his speech last week, to defend AUKUS—particularly an argument prosecuted by Defense Minister Richard Marles that the submarines would help defend Australia’s shipping lanes.
“There is no rational basis for the Albanese government facilitating the withering expense of nuclear submarines,” Keating wrote, “other than to suit and comply with the strategic ambitions of the United States—ambitions which slice through Australia’s future in the community of Asia, the basis of our rightful and honourable residency.”
The backlash to the recent announcement, from adversaries and allies alike, Wallace said, should prompt the Albanese government to go back to the drawing board and actually vet whether the deal—including the procurement of submarines powered by weapons-grade uranium—was the best option for Australia. “Instead, the government made the announcement first and expected everyone to back in behind it,” she said. “They were dreaming.”