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Nearly 40% of Australians back ‘independent middle power’ in Asia, but are they ready for what that requires now?

New polling has revealed that nearly 40 per cent of Australians back the nation becoming an “independent middle power”, at least in the traditional model – but are they prepared for what such capability and status requires in the era of geostrategic multipolarity?

New polling has revealed that nearly 40 per cent of Australians back the nation becoming an “independent middle power”, at least in the traditional model – but are they prepared for what such capability and status requires in the era of geostrategic multipolarity?

Despite the best efforts of some revolutionary thinkers across the world, definitions are important, and on the global geopolitical stage, definitions play an increasingly important role in understanding the hierarchy and intricacies that govern the global balance of power.

The relevance of understanding these nebulous and often abstract concepts becomes ever more important as the US-dominated post-Second World War order continues to come under assault amid the rise of a new multipolar world, characterised by multiple centres of economic, political, and strategic mass, not least of all, in the Indo-Pacific.

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This assault has been driven in large part by the meteoric rise of the world’s two new emerging superpowers, the People’s Republic of China and India and a growing number of emerging great powers, ranging from Brazil, Indonesia and Poland to Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Thailand.

The disparity between these emerging powers necessitates an understanding of the power dynamics, particularly those surrounding definitions of “great powers”, “middle powers”, and “small powers”, particularly as the “theoretical” and “practical” applications of power become increasingly complicated and convoluted.

For Australia, a nation that has spent the better part of the last eight decades entrenching itself in and reinforcing the post-Second World War and post-Cold War order, the end of our “long holiday from history” comes as quite a rude shock for many.

Australians, in particular, are used to a certain tranquility and stability in the globe and more specifically, the Indo-Pacific, as a result of its position as a “loyal deputy” to the United States and an integral part of the global order.

In doing so, Australia established itself as a “Middle Power”, defined by Singapore Management University’s Eduard Jordaan as: “All middle powers display foreign policy behaviour that stabilises and legitimises the global order, typically through multilateral and cooperative initiatives. However, emerging and traditional middle powers can be distinguished in terms of their mutually-influencing constitutive and behavioural differences.

“Constitutively, traditional middle powers are wealthy, stable, egalitarian, social democratic and not regionally influential. Behaviourally, they exhibit a weak and ambivalent regional orientation, constructing identities distinct from powerful states in their regions and offer appeasing concessions to pressures for global reform,” Jordaan detailed further.

Clearly, this definition fits Australia, as it currently stands to a tee, however, as the world around us evolves and, indeed, the order we have become dependent upon continues to decline, what are we to do?

Well, recent polling conducted by The Guardian Australia revealed some surprising results, mainly that when asked what Australia’s role in global affairs should be, 38 per cent of the 1,126 respondents believed Australia should be “an independent middle power with influence in the Asia-Pacific region”.

Other major responses included just 20 per cent of those polled believing “Australia should be primarily an ally of the US”, while a quarter of those polled believing “Australia should do its best not to engage in world affairs”.

But the most surprising response is the belief of 38 per cent of Australians that we should become an “independent middle power in the Asia-Pacific region”. If you’re a little confused about this rather forward leaning response, don’t worry, I am still perplexed as well.

But it raises an important question: do these people grasp just what is required for Australia to become a truly “independent middle power in the Asia-Pacific region”, particularly in the era of great power competition that is rapidly changing both the regional and global balance of power?

Out with the old, in with the new

First things first, even by the old definition, when it comes to the practical application of power in economic and strategic terms in particular, but also increasingly political, it is at the lower end of the middle power definition provided by Eduard Jordaan – uncomfortable, but true.

This becomes only more obvious when one considers the declining state of both Europe and Japan – who face their own domestic, economic, political, and security challenges – before even looking at their regional and global challenges, and you come to a conclusion that even nuclear powers like the United Kingdom and France are at the upper tier of the middle power hierarchy.

Clearly, we find ourselves now having to throw out the old “definition” of what constitutes a middle power and begin rewriting a definition for ourselves and the nation we might become.

So, where too from here and what are the next steps for Australia to take in order to meet the ambition (and it is an ambition) of becoming an “independent middle power in the Asia-Pacific region” as desired by those polled respondents for The Guardian Australia?

A good place to start, at least from the strategic and defence aspect, is a key paragraph in the Albanese government’s 2023 Defence Strategic Review (DSR) which articulated, “Australia does not have effective defence capabilities relative to higher threat levels. In the present strategic circumstances, this can only be achieved by Australia working with the United States and other key partners in the maintenance of a favourable regional environment. Australia also needs to develop the capability to unilaterally deter any state from offensive military action against Australian forces or territory.”

We are FAR from being match fit

However, as we have established extensively previously (here, here, here and here), deterrence depends on a number of overlapping and, as is the case in our new world, interconnected capabilities across the domains that can be scaled up or down, depending on the threat environment and the contingency required.

Currently, Australia’s defence capabilities as they stand and as they are tentatively outlined in the DSR (pending more formal updates to the Integrated Investment Plan and a Force Structure Plan), don’t have the structure, mass, scalability, let alone platforms (nuclear-powered submarines excluded) or doctrine needed to secure the nation’s interests as an “independent middle power in the Asia-Pacific region”.

Now yes, most of the proponents of this approach will cite the success of “independent middle powers” particularly Sweden, a nation significantly smaller than Australia, but one which is rapidly expanding its armed forces to have a similar-sized military to that planned by the Australian Defence Force by 2040.

This comparison fails to account for the differences between the two nations, namely the population, the geographic environs (broadly speaking, Sweden has a comparatively more benign environment, despite sharing a land border with Russia than we do) and the economic and industrial base Sweden has.

So that rules Sweden out as a model to emulate. What about a “tier one” middle power like the United Kingdom (when the British Armed Forces are sufficiently funded and equipped that is)? Taking away the UK’s nuclear weapons arsenal (limited though it is) we are probably getting closer to the money in terms of scalable, flexible, and adaptable capability Australia needs to emulate in order to act as an “independent middle power in the Asia-Pacific region”.

Still on board, guys? Because meeting that level of capability will require a significant expansion of both the ADF’s manpower and funding, beyond the 2 per cent of gross domestic product target both sides of Australian politics have lauded as our long-term goal.

That is good news given exactly half of the respondents polled by The Guardian Australia stated that Australia’s AU$55.6 billion Defence budget is “about the right amount” while 20 per cent of the respondents stated it was “not enough” and 29 per cent stated it was “too much”. But for the sake of our argument, it is reasonable to assume that about 70 per cent of Australians would support higher levels of Defence spending to support the greater independence and role in the Indo-Pacific.

‘Independence’ requires economic vitality and complexity

Economically for Australia, that is an even bigger can of worms given the well-recognised decline of our economic complexity, competitiveness, mounting public and private debt among a myriad of other political, regulatory and legislative handbrakes on economic growth.

For Dimitri Burshtein, principal at Eminence Advisory, Australia requires an intense period of economic reform in order to avoid, as he believes, “Canberra [is] driving us down the long, slow road to economic ruin.”

Burshtein warned that this is not a new phenomenon, with much of the current policy malaise and ensuing impact on the nation’s prosperity, individual wealth, and productivity coming as a result of successive failed economic policies that have ever-slowly lurched towards tighter control and central planning.

“Like boiling a frog, the cumulative effects of ever-increasing taxes, government spending, and regulations will eventually lead to economic atrophy. Shortly after the turn of the millennium, Australian governments commenced steering the national economy away from prosperity and towards penury through ever-increasing planning and control,” Burshtein stated.

This position has been extensively reinforced Dr Kevin You, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs, who added, “On energy, again Australia used to be a powerhouse, boasting among the lowest electricity prices in the world. Now we are ranked 52nd, the result of a failing transition to net zero emissions. On tax and red tape, Australian policymakers are engaging in economic self-harm. We are one of the highest taxed people in the developed world.

“On corporate tax and personal income tax we are ranked 56th and 57th of 64. And on the key metric of ‘bureaucracy not hindering economic activity’, Australia has plunged 14 places since our peak in 2004. This means there are more bureaucrats, permits, forms and red tape getting in the way of businesses which want to invest and employ Australians in secure jobs,” You explained.

So, if Australia is going to truly become an “independent middle power in the Asia-Pacific region”, we will require a break with the politics and policy of “the path of least resistance” that has dominated our policy making for the better part of three decades, at least.

Overcoming this slow stagnation and degradation of our economic prosperity isn’t rocket science either, in fact, we have the “secret sauce” for success from our own not-so-distant past.

Burshtein detailed this secret sauce, stating, “Modern economic history has repeatedly shown that competitive tax rates, limited regulation, and restrained government spending are preconditions for prosperity. Yet, based on the flawed logic that any problem can be resolved through a tax, subsidy, law, or regulation, governments have continued to throw sand into Australia’s economic engine. And when the engine starts to sputter, delivering inflation and a slowing economy, the electoral incentive is for even more sand to be thrown.”

Final thoughts

Importantly, in this era of renewed competition between autarchy and democracy, this is an uncomfortable conversation that needs to be had in the open with the Australian people, as ultimately, they will be called upon to help implement it, to consent to the direction, and to defend it should diplomacy fail.

Our economic resilience, capacity, and competitiveness will prove equally as critical to success in the new world power paradigm as that of the United States, the United Kingdom, or Europe, and we need to begin to recognise the opportunities presented before us.

Expanding and enhancing the opportunities available to Australians while building critical economic resilience, and as a result, deterrence to economic coercion, should be the core focus of the government because only when our economy is strong can we ensure that we can deter aggression towards the nation or our interests.

This also requires a greater degree of transparency and a culture of innovation and collaboration between the nation’s strategic policymakers, elected officials, and the constituents they represent and serve – equally, this approach will need to entice the Australian public to once again invest in and believe in the future direction of the nation.

Additionally, Australia will need to have an honest conversation about how we view ourselves and what our own ambitions are. Is it reasonable for Australia to position itself as a “middle” or “regional” power in this rapidly evolving geopolitical environment? Equally, if we are going to brand ourselves as such, shouldn’t we aim for the top tier to ensure we get the best deal for ourselves and our future generations?

If we are going to emerge as a prosperous, secure, and free nation in the new era of great power competition, it is clear we will need break the shackles of short-termism and begin to think far more long term, to the benefit of current and future generations of Australians.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Stephen Kuper

Stephen Kuper

Steve has an extensive career across government, defence industry and advocacy, having previously worked for cabinet ministers at both Federal and State levels.

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