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Former PM Paul Keating says a defence policy is not enough on its own. Photo: Glen Campbell

It's been a long time since I've added to this blog. I've been busy.

Defence Minister Stephen Smith is much in the news these days - touted as a potential replacement PM for the embattled Julia Gillard. I'm going to leave that speculation aside, but a little snippet from the Strewth column about Smith in today's Oz caught my eye.

Smith, who was foreign minister under Kevin Rudd, told an audience in his home town of Perth that he often gets asked about the difference between the two jobs.

''It's quite easy,'' he said. ''Being defence minister is foreign policy but with assets, cash and capability."

Doubtless this was a throwaway line to lighten the mood, and close followers of Australian diplomacy will be aware of regular complaints about poor resourcing of the Foreign Affairs department - a point taken up by by DFAT chief Dennis Richardson and forcibly made in the Red Book advice to Kevin Rudd after the last election.

But if Smith has actually made something of a Freudian slip - betraying a thought that defence policy is the way to achieve foreign policy goals - well, it's time to sound the alarm.

Let's leave it to Smith's old boss, Paul Keating, to explain why.

''A defence policy is not enough on its own,'' Keating told a Perth audience, in 2009. ''It has to be woven into a view of the region and that view can only be encapsulated within a foreign policy.

''Too often, Australia has created problems for itself when its defence policy has gotten ahead of its foreign policy; Vietnam and Iraq are prime examples.''

Keating's concern was the ''ambivalent tone'' of Australia's Defence white paper, which had been released a couple of months before.

And it was the approach to China that most concerned Keating. The defence document failed ''to give us an indication as to whether it foresaw the growth of China’s military capabilities as a natural and legitimate thing for a rising economic power or whether, to the contrary, it was something we should regard as a threat and for which we should plan''.

''The fact is,'' he went on, ''Australia does not know and cannot divine what sort of new order might obtain as Chinese economic and military power grows in the face of relative American decline.  And complicating that assessment, China rising in the company of other rising regional powers.

''A region of this kind might turn out to be as peaceful and as prosperous for Australia as the one we have had since the end of the Vietnam War; a place where all powers have a role and where Australia is open to have whatever relationship it wants with any of them.  But then again it might not turn out like this.  The region may become more problematic.''

So by all means, he concluded, have contingency planning in defence policy against adverse circumstances. But with foreign policy, look out for the opportunities.

''We must always be outgoing,'' Keating said. ''We must be alert, dextrous and positive: never defensive.''

It's a speech Stephen Smith would do well to read again.

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