How should Canberra approach its relationships with influential middle powers in the region as part of a broader endeavour to shore-up security in the face of Chinese aggression?
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Richard Marles, and Foreign Minister Penny Wong have been busy shaping the government’s foreign policy since assuming office.
The Prime Minister commenced his tenure with a trip to Japan for a Quad leaders’ meeting and has since flown to Europe and the South Pacific to reaffirm Australia’s commitment to preserving the rules-based order, disturbed by Russian aggression in Ukraine and Chinese coercion in the Indo-Pacific.
Minister Marles’ work has focused on advancing Australia’s defence and security agenda through mechanisms like AUKUS, supported by a push to deepen cooperation with the United States under the ANZUS Treaty.
Meanwhile, Minister Wong has sought to revitalise Australia’s relationship with its nearest neighbours in the South Pacific and South-East Asia, with the minister delivering a key address to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore and attending the Pacific Islands Forum.
Minister Wong’s approach has emphasised broad contribution to a “strategic equilibrium” via regional “structures”, including the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum, and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus.
According to Hervé Lemahieu, director of research at the Lowy Institute, this rhetoric suggests the Albanese government is “nuancing a one-size-fits-all strategic approach” to the Indo-Pacific, instead favouring a “more regionally tailored articulation” of Australia’s interests.
“Canberra is seeking to square the circle between two objectives: building a strategic counterweight to China with like-minded partners on the one hand and, on the other, co-operating with a more geopolitically diverse set of countries in shoring up the regional order,” Lemahieu writes.
He divides Australia’s regional strategy into three “concentric rings”, which include:
- Australia’s Pacific “inner ring” — reinforcing the country’s position as the leading provider of public goods;
- an “outer ring” of major powers — members of the Quad or AUKUS; and
- a “missing middle” — a “loss of relevance and strategic drift” in South-East Asia.
“A new bipolar front in Europe has galvanised Western unity. But the ripple effect from the Ukraine war has played out differently in South-East Asia, hastening the arrival of what Richard Maude at Asia Society has termed a ‘trifurcated order’,” Lemahieu continues.
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“There are clear geopolitical antagonisms, but on the main axis in South-East Asia this does not add up to consolidated blocs.
“What we are seeing is the formation of polarities rather than blocs. Most resident countries will hedge doggedly in between.”
To capture this “mussing middle”, Lemahieu suggests Canberra communicate a vision transcending the “coterie of the converted”, exploring ways to “bridge the divergence between two camps” of middle powers, which he describes as the “balancers and the hedgers”.
“[Minister] Wong’s call for strategic equilibrium in that sense marks an interesting departure from the usual articulation of Australia’s objective of forging a balance of power,” he observes.
“It creates space to recognise that middle powers, including Australia, will take different positions in respect of the great powers but can still find common ground on the role and purpose of the ASEAN-led regional architecture, and the importance of ensuring the sovereignty of smaller states within it.”
He notes that while Australia’s greatest threat is China’s coercion, ASEAN members are more concerned with the impact of US-China rivalry on the regional order.
“There is little point and some hypocrisy in denying our differences. Rather, we should be upfront and seek to move beyond them,” Lemahieu writes.
The Lowy Institute director argues Canberra should no longer expect South-East Asian middle powers to adopt its anxieties about China, given the varying strategic interests of nations.
This, he said, is evidenced by Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s recent trip to Moscow.
“We should remember that South-East Asia’s non-alignment policies are grounded in the region’s history and an interpretation of their strategic realities often more plausible than what passes through Canberra and Washington,” Lemahieu observes.
Finally, Lemahieu urges Canberra to recognise a distinction between “shaping the balance of power and shaping the regional order”.
He continues: “In fact, in the absence of a functioning, broad-based regional architecture, a balance of power tout court is a negative proposition. It portends a return to the Cold War.
“Australia must engage the middle powers of South-East Asia on their own terms and concerns.
“Whether the region can continue to be defined by a common peace and a common prosperity that maximises the options for all its players, large or small, should be a first-order concern for Canberra.”
Lemahieu recommends these differences in approach be guided by a “high-level roving regional ambassador”, ideally with a “direct line to government decision making”.
“What’s needed now is greater differentiation in Australia’s engagement in the three theatres of the Indo-Pacific, and a greater appreciation of the types of diplomacy required in each,” Lemahieu concludes.