Former PM Paul Keating says Coalition, Labor has 'lost its way' over China tensions

Former prime minister Paul Keating has slammed both the Coalition and Labor parties for failing to engage diplomatically with China amid rising tensions in recent years.

The former Labor leader said the government's "appalling" escalation of tensions with China, and its flawed nuclear submarine ambitions, were a shift in the wrong direction for the country, instead urging stronger engagement with the emerging global superpower.

Mr Keating, who held the top job between 1991 and 1996, said the country had lost its way in seeking security from Asia, rather than with it, in his National Press Club appearance on Wednesday.

"We are at odds with our geography and we have lost our way," he said.

"This is a kind of hopeless environment we're in.

"I have taken the view always that engagement with China, and its absorption in the region, will establish a better framework for both China and the United States to work in, including Australia.

"China is simply too big and too central to be ostracised."

The AUKUS agreement is expected to deliver eight nuclear-powered submarines to the country from 2040.

Mr Keating described the upcoming capability, which is being touted as a boost to the country's military strength amid a rising Chinese presence in the region, as throwing "a handful of toothpicks at a mountain".

"These submarines were designed in the 1990s. By the time we have half a dozen of them, it will be 2045 or '50, they will be 50 or 60 years old," he said.

"In other words, our new submarines will be old tech - it'd be like buying an old 747 [plane]."

But the Labor heavy-hitter did not hold back criticisms against his own political party.

Mr Keating said Labor also deserved some of the blame and had forgotten its own history seeking to form stronger bonds with our Asia-Pacific neighbours.

Instead, he blamed Labor foreign affairs spokesperson Senator Penny Wong for tying herself to the government's position.

"You end up with a relatively quiet political life, you have no big disputes, because you're glued up onto the government," he said.

"But you make no national progress."

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China's socioeconomic power had grown exponentially in recent decades but had no desire to push its ideology, Mr Keating said.

He added, unlike the Soviet Union during the Cold War, China was a "proselytiser of globalisation in the world" and wanted to fit within the existing international system.

"They are in the adolescent phase of their diplomacy - they have testosterone running everywhere, the Chinese," he said.

"But we have to deal with them because their power will be so profoundly in this part of the world.

"China is not about turning over the existing world order. It only wants to reform it, and it wants to reform it because of its own scale."

When asked about whether Australia should be allowed to raise human rights abuses against the Uyghur people in China's north-western region during diplomatic discussions, Mr Keating said it should.

But they should not overrule efforts to maintain consistent engagement with the influential regional power, he added.

He pointed to India's treatment of the Muslim-majority Kashmir region as an example of an ally who had comparable strikes against it on the human rights front but with which Australia maintained positive diplomatic ties.

"You can speak powerfully about the rights of citizens of these countries, but it can't be the whole conversation," he said.

"That doesn't displace the wider country-to-country, nation-to-nation conversation about these states.

"In other words, you can't let human rights discussions supplant wholly and completely the relationship between the countries."

Mr Keating also criticised the US for trying maintain strategic primacy in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, rather than a switch to balancing and conciliating power in the latter region.

Australia had tied itself to the US's "wishful thinking" that it could be the security guarantor in two vast regions at once, he said.

"The Australian people are entitled to know that China is not going to try and rip up the system, China's not going to be attacking people," he said.

"We can have a civil relationship with them, even though we disagree on the range of other issues."

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Former prime minister Paul Keating has delivered an address to the National Press Club. Picture: Getty Images

Former prime minister Paul Keating has delivered an address to the National Press Club. Picture: Getty Images

This story 'Like throwing toothpicks': Keating slams nuclear subs amid China tensions first appeared on The Canberra Times.