Albanese rejects Keating’s attack, calls NATO boss ‘a friend of Australia’

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Berlin: Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has distanced himself from a vicious attack by Labor supremo Paul Keating on the head of the world’s most powerful military alliance, reminding Australians their lives are directly affected by the ongoing war in Ukraine.

On an official visit to Berlin ahead of attending Tuesday’s two-day summit for NATO leaders in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, Albanese defended the alliance’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and the role it was playing in helping Ukraine defend itself against Russia.

Speaking in Berlin, Anthony Albanese said the war in Ukraine had implications for the whole world.Credit: Hans van Leeuwen/AFR

He also announced Australia would send a surveillance plane to Europe to help allies ensure the continued and uninterrupted flow of military and humanitarian assistance into Ukraine, the first of several expected boosts in support for the war-torn country this week.

Keating, regarded by many within the Australian Labor Party as its greatest living figure, continued with his attacks on the Albanese government’s foreign policy at the weekend, calling Stoltenberg a “supreme fool” for looking to deepen the alliance’s ties with Asia in a bid to contain China.

The scathing attack came hours before Albanese landed in Germany to meet with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, where the pair announced an expansion of defence co-operation between the two nations as well as a $1 billion deal to export Queensland-made Boxer heavy weapon carriers.

Albanese, standing in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, which has become a national symbol of peace and unity, told reporters Stoltenberg was “a friend of Australia”.

“We need to remember the role that NATO is playing. There is a land war in Europe,” he said.

“This is a war about the international rule of law, about whether a large nation can seek to impose its will on a smaller nation. This is about national sovereignty. This is about the people of Ukraine, struggling to defend their democracy and their sovereignty.”

Following a lengthy bilateral meeting, Albanese announced several new areas of co-operation between the two countries, including joining Climate Club, an informal forum of leading world economies focussed on clean energy projects.

He said the Australian air force would deploy about 100 personnel and an E-7A Wedgetail to Europe to support NATO for six months, helping protect multinational logistics hubs supplying critical support to Ukraine. The aircraft will be based in Germany and operate solely in European airspace.

NATO officials have reportedly been working on plans to open a liaison office in Japan. An announcement is expected to be made during the summit of a new partnership between NATO and Japan, which could open the door to more joint military operations.

Albanese – who is attending the summit as part of the so-called “Indo-Pacific four” along with the leaders of New Zealand, Japan and South Korea – said the reported plan to open a Japan office would be a decision for NATO leaders.

He said Australia stood strong with the people and government of Ukraine and supported the “extraordinary effort” that NATO was showing.

“This is a struggle that has implications for the whole world,” he said.

In a major step in military relations, Germany will for the first time send troops to Australia as part of joint drills with more than 30,000 service members from 12 other nations, as Berlin increases its focus on the Indo-Pacific amid rising tensions with China in the region.

In recent years, Germany has had a greater military presence in the Indo-Pacific, even as this means walking a tightrope between its security and economic interests.

Up to 240 German soldiers, including 170 paratroopers and 40 marines, will take part in the Talisman Sabre exercise from July 22 to August 4 – the largest drills between Australia and the US, held bi-annually. The Germans will train in jungle warfare and landing operations alongside soldiers from countries such as Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, France and Britain.

Last year, Berlin sent 13 military aircraft to joint exercises in Australia, the air force’s largest peacetime deployment. In 2021, a German warship sailed into the South China Sea for the first time in almost 20 years.

Former prime minister Keating has also been critical of Australia’s plans to acquire nuclear submarines through the AUKUS alliance, a defensive move aimed at guarding the country against Chinese aggression.

Critical of NATO’s positioning on the Indo-Pacific, Keating accused Stoltenberg of “conducting himself as an American agent more than he performs as a leader and spokesperson for European security”.

“With all of Asia’s recent development amid its long and latent poverty, that promise would be compromised by having anything to do with the militarism of Europe – and militarism egged on by the United States,” he said.

Senator James Paterson, acting as the opposition’s foreign affairs spokesman, said Keating was essentially implying that NATO was responsible for conflict in Europe and that it was somehow to blame for Russia’s illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

“I think – even by these recent very low standards – it’s a particularly unhinged spray,” Paterson told Radio National’s Breakfast program.

Former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce said Keating wanted the government to “live in the lap of the Chinese Communist Party”.

Opposition spokesman for home affairs James Paterson called Keating’s NATO criticisms an “unhinged spray”. Credit: Rhett Wyman

He said Australia had been the biggest non-NATO contributor to Ukraine but that under the Labor government, Australia was now “slipping”.

“We’re behind the Swedes, behind Japan. We’re slipping. We’ve just sent them, what, $10 million in aid? I think that the coalition sent them $65 million in humanitarian aid. Labor just sent them $10 million,” he told Sunrise.

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