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Defining a ‘great power’ and what it looks like for Australia

As US ambassador to Australia Arthur Culvahouse calls for Australia to embrace a ‘great power’ presence in the Indo-Pacific – understanding the characteristics of a ‘great power’ and the potential the status presents for Australia is essential to supporting the nation navigate its way through the turbulent waters of the Asian Century.

As US ambassador to Australia Arthur Culvahouse calls for Australia to embrace a ‘great power’ presence in the Indo-Pacific – understanding the characteristics of a ‘great power’ and the potential the status presents for Australia is essential to supporting the nation navigate its way through the turbulent waters of the Asian Century.

History has been defined by the ambitions and conflagrations of 'great powers'. Great powers typically combine a range of characteristics that set them apart from lower tier middle and minor powers, including a complementary balance of 'hard' and 'soft' power dynamics such as military and economic strength and diplomatic and cultural influence. 


While the definition between superpowers and great powers has become increasingly blurred since the end of the Cold War – the now clear delineation between great powers like the UK, France and Germany, and to a lesser extent a resurgent Russia and Japan, and established global superpowers like the US and emerging superpower China makes the definition increasingly flexible. 

Typically these 'hard power' capabilities are defined by a combination of characteristics including: 

  • Conventional military capabilities – including air, land and sea-based power projection capabilities; 
  • Strategic deterrence capabilities – including but not limited to nuclear triad, strategic bomber and naval strategic force multipliers; and
  • Economic power – focused on maintaining strategic industries with a focus on being globally competitive across manufacturing, resource and energy security, innovation and research and development.

Recent developments in the Indo-Pacific and the rapidly changing geo-strategic environment have prompted the new US ambassador to Australia to encourage the nation to embrace a 'great power' role in the region: "We think the natural course is the Australian government, as it goes forward, will be even more supportive of US policy in the ­Pacific and that may include calling out malign influences where they see them."


This comes at a time of increased debate about Australia's national identity as it relates to the Indo-Pacific and the direction of the nation in light of the deteriorating geo-political, economic and strategic outlook in the region. 

Echoing this new request from the US are comments made by renowned Australian strategic policy thinker Hugh White, who has recently called for a major increase in Australia's defence expenditure and capabilities, including a review of Australia's stance on nuclear deterrence in response to what White identifies as a decline in US strategic capability. 

"It's made perfect sense for Australia not to contemplate nuclear weapons for the last 40 years because we've enjoyed a very high level of confidence in the American nuclear umbrella, but America provided that umbrella because it secured its position as the primary power in Asia," Professor White explained to The Sydney Morning Herald

These calls come as the US faces an increasingly contested world order – with the traditional guarantees of the US primacy now under threat, prompting Washington to actively begin prodding allies to take a greater role in securing not only their own economic, political and strategic interests, but also more directly engage in efforts by the US to effectively sustain the post-Second World War order.

Australia the great power

Establishing Australia as a great power in the Indo-Pacific is not an overnight project. Rather it is a long-term multi-decade project that requires an integrated strategy, in a similar manner to the National Security Strategy concept identified by former General and NSW senator Jim Molan – recognising that from the 'hard power' realm military and economic power and influence go 'hand in glove' and are intrinsically linked to the enduring success of such designs. 

From the economic aspect, diverse, 'globally competitive' industries serve to enhance the strategic weight of a nation – the importance of developing a robust and highly capable national industrial base was the focal point of a recent business lunch hosted by the Australian British Chamber of Commerce. Panel guests included Kate Louis of the AiGroup, Dr Mark Hodge of the DMTC, John O'Callaghan of Defence Victoria, Professor Len Sciacca of Melbourne University, and Mike Kalms of KPMG. 

As a nation Australia is unlike any other, the continent enjoys a virtually unrivalled wealth of resources, including iron ore, coal, rare earth elements, uranium, natural gas, copper and is home to one of the most robust, yet underdeveloped industrial bases in the 'developed world' – the nation also enjoys a world-leading agriculture sector, one hindered by reliable access to water and again, as expressed by speakers at the ABCC panel, a highly competitive, driven and dedicated labour force that has fallen victim to enduring stigma around competitiveness. 

Further amplifying this potential is Australia's geographic position at the cross roads of the Indian and Pacific Oceans – sharing long-standing economic partnerships with the rapidly growing economies of the region – which have voracious demands for energy, resources, agricultural and consumer goods and an overwhelming desire to enjoy a 'Western' standard of living. 

From the military perspective, robust debate is critical to identifying the roles and capabilities Australia needs to develop in order to complement the capabilities of the US – while also focusing on establishing and maintaining Australia's capacity to act independently in defence of its own unique economic, political and strategic interests and ambitions in the Indo-Pacific. 

Doing so requires a holistic review of the size, doctrine and force structure of the Australian Defence Force and a frank discussion about the strategic realities of the Indo-Pacific and the changing economic, political and strategic environment not just of today, but equally in 20 years time. 

It won't be an easy sell for both Australia's political leadership and the public at large, however the costs of not investing in and adequately developing the nation's capacity to act as an independent actor – with its own economic, political and strategic designs in the Indo-Pacific, the region intrinsically linked to our own enduring prosperity, security and stability – will spell disaster for modern Australia and the standards of living many have become accustomed to.  

Geo-political chess in the Indo-Pacific  

It is important for Australia's political and strategic leaders and more broadly the public to recognise that for the first time America has a true competitor in China – a nation with immense industrial potential, growing wealth and prosperity, a driving national purpose and a growing series of alliances with re-emerging, resource-rich great powers in Russia, and supported by a growing network of economic hubs and indebted psuedo-colonies throughout the Indo-Pacific and Asia. 

Unlike the Soviet Union and especially the smaller periphery states the US has engaged since the end of the Cold War, China is a highly industrialised nation – with an industrial capacity comparable to, if not exceeding, that of the US, supported by a rapidly narrowing technological gap, supporting growing military capability and territorial ambitions, bringing the rising power into direct competition with the US and its now fraying alliance network of tired global allies. 

The nation is defined by its relationship with the region, with access to the growing economies and to strategic sea-lines-of-communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost effective and reliable nature of sea transport. Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.

Enhancing Australia's capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability 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 – shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of "it is all a little too difficult, so let's not bother" will provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.

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 increasing both the budget and manpower available to the ADF in the comments section below, or get in touch with 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.

Defining a ‘great power’ and what it looks like for Australia
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