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".
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 of 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.
Australia, by contrast, emerged without struggle in the early-20th century as a relative backwater isolated from the sources of conflagration and great power ambition in Europe to stumble into two global conflicts it was unprepared for and a fragile, infant sense of national identity and ambition.
Fast forward to the end of the Second World War and the nation has positioned itself 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 strategic dependence is mirrored by the nation's continuing economic dependence on China and to a lesser extent the broader Indo-Pacific is placing the nation at the centre of a rapidly closing economic and strategic window of opportunity fraught with equal opportunities and challenges.
Recognising this, Australia is consistently told that as a nation we are torn between our economic relationship with China and the long-standing strategic partnership with the US, placing the country at the epicentre of a great power rivalry – but what if it didn’t have to be that way?
This rapidly evolving global environment, combined with the increasing instability of the US administration and its apparent apprehension to intervene or at least maintain the global rules-based order following the radical shift in US politics, also forces Australia to reassess the strategic calculus – embracing a radically new approach to national security strategy and policy.
The efforts of former Major General and senator for NSW Jim Molan to implement a National Security Strategy have been well documented and while it is a critical component of the nation's response to the rise of the Indo-Pacific, without a bipartisan agreement on the role of Australia in the region, a national security strategy will miss a key component.
Reinforce the status quo or to shrink 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 provided 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 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 growing need for a bipartisan agreement on the future role of Australia
Traditionally, great powers have been defined by their global reach and ability to direct 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.
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'."
Embracing these opportunities also requires an acceptance of the increasing limitations of Australia's strategic benefactor: the US and the necessity of economic diversification away from overwhelming dependence upon any single source of economic prosperity to maximise the nation's strategic and economic resilience and capacity to act as an independent, yet integrated partner in the Indo-Pacific.
Australia's position and responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific region will depend on the nation's ability to sustain itself economically, strategically and politically. Despite the nation's virtually unrivalled wealth of natural resources, agricultural and industrial potential, there is a lack of a cohesive national security strategy integrating the development of individual, yet complementary public policy strategies to support a more robust Australian role in the region.
Contemporary Australia has been far removed from the harsh realities of conflict, with many generations never enduring the reality of rationing for food, energy, medical supplies or luxury goods, and even fewer within modern Australia understanding the socio-political and economic impact such rationing would have on the now world-leading Australian standard of living.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves 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.
However, 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?