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Reaching critical mass: The emerging powers rounding out the new world order

While much of the emphasis of both Australian and Western policymakers has been on the rise of China and India, the growing array of emerging great powers across the Indo-Pacific and globally is reaching critical mass, creating an increasingly complex environment.

While much of the emphasis of both Australian and Western policymakers has been on the rise of China and India, the growing array of emerging great powers across the Indo-Pacific and globally is reaching critical mass, creating an increasingly complex environment.

For much of recorded history, the geopolitical environment and the narratives surrounding it have largely been dominated by the rise and fall of empires and great powers and the ensuing periods of order and disorder that interspersed these transitionary periods.

Whether it was the intense competition between Rome and Carthage, Britain’s struggle with Napoleonic France, and in lived memory, the economic, sociopolitical and strategic competition between the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War.

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By far, the most common characteristic of this history is the utter dominance of a small number of nations, empires or kingdoms over others, which created what is often described as a lopsided approach to the geopolitical concept of polarity, making the world a tricky environment in which to operate, particularly for middle and emerging powers.

The reality of our modern world is no different – all of this comes despite the post-Second World War dominance of the United States over the global leavers of power, institutions, and commons, which is now coming to an end.

This comes in stark contrast to the mostly peaceful and stable global environment that characterised the world over the past three decades, despite periodic crises across Africa and southern Europe requiring an intervention, luring many leaders, academics, and those across the broader policy-making community into the “End of History” theory and the promise of a “peace dividend”.

While this period was capitalised upon by the “established” rising powers of China, India, Japan, and Germany and a resurgent Russia, the “periphery” nations like Indonesia, South Korea, Vietnam, Brazil, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and others embraced this period of US-guaranteed stability, normalisation of global trade affairs, and opening up of global capital markets to carve their own paths forward.

In the first part of this short series, we took a closer look at the impact of the decline of Australia’s major security partners when compared to the increasing prosperity and ambition of the world’s two major superpowers, China and India.

Now, we will take a closer look at the “periphery” yet equally important nations that are emerging both in the Indo-Pacific and, more broadly, on the global stage that will come to have a greater influence on the peace, prosperity, and stability of the world order.

Approaching a critical mass

In a major departure from the precedent of history, the world in which we are now entering is increasingly going to be dominated by the growing mass of nations that would traditionally be defined as “great powers”, yet for all intents and purposes, have largely been considered “periphery” until now.

For Australia, this, in particular, presents a unique conundrum, as the world we face is dramatically different to that of the past eight decades, with an increasing mass of competing “great powers” all with vastly different economic, religious, ethnic, cultural, and strategic interests and ambitions.

This reality is further clouded by the burden of history, namely, the era of colonisation for which many of these emerging great powers share common experiences that continue to colour their view of the Western world, spurred on by revolutionary powers like the People’s Republic of China in particular.

Driving this growth is the period of globalisation that began in the West in the 1980s and speeded up following the collapse of the Soviet Union, which has seen a range of industries emerge across these nations, resulting in truly astronomical growth for the developing world.

For example, the past three decades have laid the foundation for the coming decades’ worth of growth, with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), for example, highlighting that for nations like Indonesia, Brazil, Russia, Mexico, Vietnam and others, the trajectory is up, with PwC analysis of International Monetary Fund (IMF) data revealing that by 2050, China, India, Brazil, Russia, Mexico, and Indonesia will make up the bulk of the top 10 largest economies.

In contrast, the United States will be the third-largest economy with Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom rounding out the top 10. The same analysis also reveals that Vietnam, the Philippines, and Nigeria will respectively move from outside the G20, to firmly within the G20 gathering of the world’s 20 largest economies.

Meanwhile, Australia, for comparison, would – along current and future growth trajectories – “struggle to make the G30” with Australia expected to drop from the 19th largest economy to the 28th largest by 2050, according to the same PwC and IMF data, with regional neighbours including Bangladesh, Vietnam, Pakistan, and the Philippines also ahead of us.

This presents a serious challenge for Australia in the future as we struggle to navigate the competing ambitions and designs of regional powers with larger economies and populations than that of Australia and without the guarantee of continued strategic support of our traditional partners like the United States and the United Kingdom which themselves are facing their own decline.

While it is fair to say that economic size isn’t everything, in a region as diverse and with significant cultural, ethnic, and religious divisions as the Indo-Pacific, security and stability aren’t necessarily guaranteed, something that will have a significant impact on Australia’s own economic prosperity and stability as an export nation.

With this mounting prosperity, it is safe to expect that these nations will begin to further test the boundaries of the post-Second World War order in a manner similar to the way Beijing has in recent years, particularly where economic and strategic interests intersect with national or cultural pride.

But the expanding numbers of growing “great powers” doesn’t stop close to home, with the critical mass a truly global phenomenon.

Confronting competitive markets amid stagnating economic performance

A little further afield, in both South America and Africa, it is becoming clearer that Australia will face a number of challengers to its traditional drivers of economic prosperity, namely mining and agriculture as powerhouses across those two continents continue to entrench themselves in the parallel supply chains emerging via organisations like the BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

In particular, the importance of resources like lithium, cobalt, tungsten, nickel, and other critical elements for the manufacturing of advanced electronic components, electronic vehicles, batteries, coupled with more traditional resources like oil, natural gas, iron ore, coal, copper, and uranium, all of which are common in economies like Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and South Africa already integrated into the parallel economy, presents major challenges to Australia.

Equally, the voracious human demand for quality agricultural produce, responsible for much of Australia’s own recent economic growth off the back of China’s rising middle class, will see an explosion in demand, with the aforementioned markets well positioned to undercut Australian producers, further impacting the resilience, competitiveness, and longevity of the national economy.

All of these factors feed into a broader structural problem for the Australian economy, one identified in the government’s Intergenerational Report 2023: Australia’s future to 2063 which details some of the major headwinds coming our away, namely: “Major forces will shape the economy in coming years, including population ageing; rising demand for care and support services; climate change and the net zero transformation; technology and digital adaptation; and geopolitical risk and fragmentation. These forces will change the structure of our economy and how Australians live, work and engage with the world.”

Yet for Treasurer Jim Chalmers, it is largely smooth sailing, who at a press conference on 6 September, told reporters, “The Australian economy remains steady and sturdy in the face of unrelenting pressure. Economic growth held up relatively well despite the inevitable toll of higher interest rates, high but moderating inflation and continuing global uncertainty, particularly as it relates to China. We know that there are challenges ahead but we face them from a position of relative strength.”

Contrast this with the warning from the Treasurer’s colleague, Foreign Minister Senator Penny Wong, who as part of the media surrounding the Prime Minister’s announcement of the Southeast Asia economic strategy to 2040, said, “Australian business knows the risk of having too many eggs in one market ... While Southeast Asia has grown rapidly, the share of Australia’s overall trade in the region has flatlined over the past 15 years. And Australian direct investment in the region is now lower than it was in 2014.”

Final thoughts

Only by recognising the relative decline of the United States (not a popular opinion to state out loud) and accepting that the United States has limitations can Australia truly begin to take stock of the challenges of operating in this increasingly multipolar world.

However, it is critical for us to understand that Australia’s security, prosperity, and stability will not be determined by events in Europe, nor will they be determined by circumstances in the Middle East, while they may influence global circumstances, our national future will not be determined by these areas.

Rather, the nation’s future will be determined both in Canberra and in the capitals of our regional neighbours who, as their wealth and global status continues to evolve, will become increasingly confident and capable when it comes to shaping the environment and all in it, to their desires.

It is important to highlight that in the emerging era of multipolarity, Australia will face an increasingly competitive Indo-Pacific.

Indeed, separate to the People’s Republic of China, our immediate region is home to some of the world’s largest populations with its fastest-growing economies with their own unique designs and economic, political, and strategic ambitions for the region, so we had best prepare for it.

Rather, we have to accept that while the world is increasingly becoming “multipolar”, the Indo-Pacific, in particular, is rapidly becoming the most hotly contested region in the world. Underpinned by the emerging economic, political, and strategic might of powers like China, India, Pakistan, Thailand, Vietnam, and the established and re-emerging capability of both South Korea and Japan, in particular, are serving to create a hotbed of competition on our doorstep.

Recognising this array of challenges and opportunities, both the Australian public and its policymakers need to look beyond the myopic lens that has traditionally dominated our diplomatic, strategic, and economic policy making since Federation.

Ultimately, we need to see Australia begin to play the long game to fully capitalise on the opportunities transforming the Indo-Pacific. The most important questions now become, when will we see a more detailed analysis and response to the challenges and opportunities facing Australia and when will we see a narrative that better helps industry and the Australian public understand the challenges faced and opportunities we have presented before us?

As events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political, and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power, or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?

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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