Anthony Albanese says China has become “far more forward-leaning” and that is what is driving Australia to change its foreign policy, implicitly pushing back at criticism from the former prime minister Paul Keating.
The opposition leader on Thursday avoided directly criticising Keating – a Labor elder who said both major parties had lost their way – but made it plain that he did not share the assessment of the strategic circumstances Australia now faces.
“China has changed its posture – that’s the truth,” Albanese told the Nine Network when asked to respond to Keating.
“They’re far more forward-leaning. Australia is right to speak up for our own values. China is the nation that’s changed in terms of their attitude towards Australian imports, for example, and Australian businesses are suffering.”
Keating, who served as prime minister from 1991 to 1996, said Beijing was “in the adolescent phase of their diplomacy” and had “testosterone running everywhere”, but Australia had no alternative but to engage with an increasingly powerful China.
Reprising a mantra from when he was prime minister, Keating told the National Press Club the Morrison government was wrongly “trying to find our security from Asia rather than in Asia”.
Keating also played down criticism of China’s militarisation of disputed features in the South China Sea by saying “big powers are rude”, and said Australia “should not be drawn into a military engagement over Taiwan” because the democratically governed island of 24 million people was “not a vital Australian interest”.
Albanese later told reporters he aways listened to Keating, as a respected former leader, “but the Labor party determines our policy going forward”.
“And that’s a policy based upon principle but also based upon recognising where we are in 2021.”
Albanese’s comments are another sign of the opposition attempting to minimise difference with the government on national security and foreign affairs, seeking to head off efforts by Scott Morrison and his ministers to portray Labor as weak in the lead-up to the election due by May.
Morrison told voters on Thursday “you really can’t trust them when it comes to these national security issues”.
Labor has supported the Aukus partnership with the US and the UK to deliver at least eight nuclear-propelled submarines, based on advice that they will need to be able to travel further with less detection as the outlook in the Indo-Pacific worsens.
But Labor has also sought assurances about concerns such as Australia’s freedom to differ from the US on military matters.
The opposition accused Morrison of botching the diplomacy around Aukus, after France’s president Emmanuel Macron said the prime minister had lied to him about Australia’s plan to scrap the previous $90bn conventional submarine contract. The US president, Joe Biden, told Macron it had been handled clumsily.
Over the past 18 months, as Australia’s relationship with Beijing deteriorated, Labor has tended to focus on matters of competence rather than the big strategic questions, accusing the Coalition of heightening rhetoric for domestic political purposes and failing to have a proper strategy for handling a more assertive China.
Keating argued the foreign policy debate in Australia was now driven by “the spooks” in the security agencies, and when it came to the major foreign policy choices the Coalition and Labor were “fundamentally not up to it”.
He said Labor’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Penny Wong, had opted for a “reasonably quiet political life” by effectively taking the position that “there shouldn’t be an ounce of daylight between her and the Liberal party” on foreign policy.
Wong did not respond to the critique, but Albanese said Labor’s policy needed to recognise “where we are in 2021” including the “era of strategic competition between the United States and China”.
He said he agreed with the Biden administration “that what we need is competition without catastrophe” and that would require engagement – but it also required an acknowledgement of China’s change in its external posture.
Albanese said Labor’s foreign policy was based on three principles: “Our alliance with the United States, engagement in our region and support for multilateral forums.”
The defence minister, Peter Dutton, labelled the former Labor prime minister as “Grand Appeaser Comrade Keating”:
Morrison argued that Keating was reflecting the views of “a lot of people in the Labor Party”. Morrison said Keating was “certainly out of line with what our government’s policy is, and we certainly don’t share that view”.
Pivoting to an election message about national security, Morrison told the Nine Network: “[To] secure Australia’s interests in our part of the world, you’ve got to be strong. You’ve got to be able to stand up for it. You’ve got to be able to see things clearly.”
Morrison said Australia wanted a positive relationship with China “but at the same time we’re not going to get pushed around”. He accused Albanese of “joining with the Chinese government and others from overseas having an attack on me the other day”.
In fact, Albanese did not endorse Beijing’s positions, but cited Macron’s accusation that Morrison had lied to further Labor’s narrative that the prime minister could not be trusted. Albanese also criticised Morrison over the “extraordinary” decision to release a text message he had received from Macron.