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Minor, middle or great power? Defining Australia’s role in the Indo-Pacific

The rise of Indo-Pacific Asia is serving to exacerbate Australia’s identity crisis, with politics playing an important role in navigating the quagmire of ideas to develop and implement a clear, concise and considered role for Australia in the 21st century. In order to do so, however, Australia needs to clearly identify what role it needs to play: that of a minor, middle or regional great power.

The rise of Indo-Pacific Asia is serving to exacerbate Australia’s identity crisis, with politics playing an important role in navigating the quagmire of ideas to develop and implement a clear, concise and considered role for Australia in the 21st century. In order to do so, however, Australia needs to clearly identify what role it needs to play: that of a minor, middle or regional great power.

Throughout history, nations, kingdoms and empires with a clearly defined sense of purpose, ambition and role have prospered and flourished. The US and its 19th century concept of 'manifest destiny' served as the guiding star for the development of the US, paving the way for the nation to emerge from the Second World War as the "leader of the free world".

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The British Empire before it, guided by the romantic notions of Camelot and Arthurian equality and the lure of the Magna Carta, China's own ancient Mandate of Heaven, the Indian Hindutva and the Russian concept of a Third Rome equally serve as invaluable examples of nations guided by a common unifying and defining role for the nation to play within the confines of geo-political and strategic relations.

These concepts and the ensuing identities formed out them have played an important role in guiding and unifying the various political systems and structures responsible for decision making within these nations, kingdoms and empires. 

In part one and part two of this series we took a closer look at the role and impact of bipartisan and partisan strategic and defence policy making in the US and Canada and the lessons both examples present for Australian policy makers as they navigate the nation's role in the increasingly murky waters of 21st century Indo-Pacific Asia. 

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Australia emerged from the Second World War as a middle power, essential to maintaining the post-war economic, political and strategic power paradigm established and led by the US – this relationship established as a result of the direct threat to Australia replaced Australia's strategic relationship of dependence on the British Empire and continues to serve as the basis of the nation's strategic policy direction and planning. 

This relationship, similar to that of Canada, has influenced the partisan policy makers of Australia since the end of World War Two, with the period of the Cold War and first decades of the new millennium characterised by policies and doctrines of both interventionism and other periods of relative isolation, driven by the various changes in Australian government and domestic politics through the period. 

Exacerbating these challenges is the emerging superpowers like China and India continue to develop as the economic, political and strategic powers at the core of Indo-Pacific Asia. Australia has also witnessed the development of the region’s periphery powers including Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand, each with competing priorities and objectives, which is serving to challenge the established geo-political, economic and strategic security and prosperity of the region.

As a result, it is critical that Australia’s political decision makers recognise the strategic, political and economic realities of Indo-Pacific Asia and the corresponding complex traditional and asymmetric challenges to national security to develop a definitive and comprehensive doctrine, force structure and industry development policy objective.  

Maintaining the status quo or shrinking in the face of Asia?

Australia as a nation has built its prosperity, security and stability on its position as a middle power in the post-Second World War international order. Like its relationship with the British Empire, Australia's relationship with the US provides a degree a insulation for Australia's policy makers when it came to defining a role for the nation beyond continuing its role as a "loyal deputy". 

However, as a nation Australia has often walked the line, balancing traditional middle power and minor power characteristics, which have served to exacerbate the partisan nature of the nation's strategic and defence policy making. In particular, Australia has historically been dependent upon the benevolence of the broader international community, at both an economic and strategic level – this is most evident in two specific arenas, firstly the nation's continued economic dependence on China and strategic dependence on the US.

Additionally, as a "responsible member of the international community" Australia uses its economic, relative political stability and integration within the international institutions like the United Nations, World Bank, International Criminal Court and International Monetary Fund to serve both its own interests, while also providing avenues to carry the favour of its great power partners. 

This balancing act combined with the competing interests of Australia's economic, political and strategic agendas directly influence both sides of Australia's domestic political discourse and policy making, which constantly try to maintain the nation's tenuous position in an increasingly challenging part of the world. 

These challenges also present significant opportunities for Australia, the public and is firmly in the hands of its policy makers. Recognising this, both sides of Australian politics have sought to more directly embrace the 'middle power' elements of Australia's position since the mid-2000s to engage differently with Indo-Pacific Asia at an economic, diplomatic and military level, ranging from school exchange programs in the New Columbo Plan and the ‘Pacific step-up’ program to the annual Indo-Pacific Endeavour military exercises.

However, the economic, political and increasingly the strategic rise of Indo-Pacific Asia's power players is dramatically impacting the US, itself struggling to counter the rise of both Russia and China, exposing Australia to the mercy of equally ambitious, competitive and increasingly capable peer and near-peer competitors emerging in the nations proximity. 

The need for bipartisan agreement: Towards a great power

Traditionally, great powers have been defined by their global reach and ability to directl the flow of international affairs. There are a number of recognised great powers within the context of contemporary international relations – with Great Britain, France, India and Russia recognised as nuclear capable great powers, while Germany, Italy, Japan and increasingly Brazil are identified as conventional great powers. 

Each of these nations combine a complex range of power indicators including a reasonable population size, advanced economic and industrial capabilities, diplomatic participation, cultural recognition and attractiveness and weight and military power projection capabilities these power indicators are separated between traditional concepts of 'soft' and 'hard' power. 

Interestingly, while these nations have played a critical role in the development of the international order, central to the success of these nations and their position within the international order is the largely bipartisan approach and commitment to developing, solidifying and enhancing the nation and its economic, political and strategic interests within the international community. 

The majority of these recognised great power nations have a history of embracing a unifying goal, a concept of 'manifest destiny', which plays a central role in directing the political, economic and critically, strategic and military development of these nations and their position within the international community. By contrast, Australia's history of dependence on larger powers has hindered its ability to emerge as a great power. Despite this, there have been some Australian politicians who have presented the idea of transforming Australia and its role as a great power.

In 1950, then prime minister Robert Menzies outlined not just a call to action for Australia, but also identified the nation's responsibility to support the development and maintenance of a peaceful world, saying: "If we want to make our contribution to the pacification of the world, it is our duty to present to the world the spectacle of a rich country with a great people, with an adequate population with a population which may justly say to the rest of the world: 'We are here; we propose to maintain our integrity as a nation; and our warrant for that is that we are using the resources which God has given into our hands'."

What next? What does an Australian great power look like? 

In order to establish itself as an Indo-Pacific great power, bipartisan support is a necessity as the US demonstrated throughout the Cold War era to support the development of the necessary 'soft' and 'hard' policy areas the complex and differing examples of great powers provide two alternate avenues for Australian policy makers to pursue. 

In the military domain, the major deciding point is to become a nuclear power or to remain a conventional power with great power, multi-domain and integrated force projection capabilities, including rapidly deployable expeditionary focused ground forces, naval power projection forces including aircraft carrier strike groups, amphibious assault groups, at sea deterrence submarine forces and integrated, expeditionary capable air forces combining tactical fighter aircraft, tactical and strategic strike, air lift and tanker, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. 

For Australia, this would mean an increase in the size and capability of the Australian Defence Force  this transition toward a great power position would also require to increase its defence expenditure, far beyond the 2 per cent of GDP as is currently mandated and promised by both sides of Australian politics. This transition also requires a shift in the narrative around the nation's role and responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific. 

The development of a great power-style force structure serves not only as a powerful symbol of Australia's sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia, it also serves as powerful 'hard power' example of Australian diplomacy, furthering the nation's national interests and security agenda.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia's future role and position in the Indo-Pacific 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.     

Minor, middle or great power? Defining Australia’s role in the Indo-Pacific
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