Australia has long been described as a ‘middle power’, particularly within the post-Second World War order – however, in the face of a rising Indo-Pacific, can the nation’s status quo approach to regional power dynamics really mean we qualify as a true ‘middle power’?
Australia is unlike virtually every other developed nation, it has enjoyed a record near three decades of economic prosperity and stability, buoyed by the immense mineral and resource wealth of the landmass and the strategic benevolence of the post-Second World War political, economic and strategic order.
Across the Indo-Pacific, competing economic, political and strategic interests, designs and ambitions are beginning to clash, flying in contrast to the projections of many historians at the end of the Cold War – further compounding these issues is the continued instability caused by the coronavirus and concerns about ecological collapse.
Driven by an unprecedented economic transformation, propelling once developing nations onto the world stage, the region, the globe and its established powers are having to adjust to a dramatically different global power paradigm – one committed to undermining and influencing the fabric of Australian and Western democracies.
Without sounding like a broken record, in this era of increasing nation-state competition, driven largely by the great power competition between the US and China and the subsequent impact on nations, Australia is finding itself at the epicentre of the new global paradigm with unique economic, political and strategic implications for the nation’s national security.
This has prompted an increasing number of strategic policy experts, journalists and politicians to increasingly vocalise the growing demands from the Australian public to do more to ensure Australia's economic, political and strategic integrity.
In doing so, many have failed to raise an important question: Can Australia truly be defined as a 'middle power' in the midst of a rapidly evolving economic, political and strategic paradigm?
Definitions are important
It is important to understand that contemporary power dynamics, particularly those surrounding definitions of 'great powers', 'middle powers' and 'small powers', particularly as the 'theoretical' and 'practical' applications of power become increasingly complicated.
For Australia, the Singapore Management University's Eduard Jordaan's definition of contemporary 'middle powers' is perhaps the most relevant and timely:
"All middle powers display foreign policy behaviour that stabilises and legitimises the global order, typically through multilateral and cooperative initiatives. However, emerging and traditional middle powers can be distinguished in terms of their mutually-influencing constitutive and behavioural differences.
"Constitutively, traditional middle powers are wealthy, stable, egalitarian, social democratic and not regionally influential. Behaviourally, they exhibit a weak and ambivalent regional orientation, constructing identities distinct from powerful states in their regions and offer appeasing concessions to pressures for global reform.
"[However] emerging middle powers by contrast are semi-peripheral, materially inegalitarian and recently democratised states that demonstrate much regional influence and self-association. Behaviourally, they opt for reformist and not radical global change, exhibit a strong regional orientation favouring regional integration but seek also to construct identities distinct from those of the weak states in their region."
In the contemporary context, Australia has used its 'theoretical' influence and political 'clout' on the world stage to strengthen and enhance the US-led post-Second World War economic, political and strategic order in instances ranging from the Somalia, East Timor and Solomon Islands interventions, to supporting the enforcement of sanctions on rogue nations like North Korea and Iran.
Additionally, Australia has played a prominent role supporting the post-war economic and political order and institutions, ranging from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the United Nations, however many of the physical or 'practical' interventions have stretched the capacity of Australia to act independently in the furtherance of its own national interests.
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 policymaking.
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 IMF 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 policymaking, 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 policymakers.
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 nation's proximity.
The need for bipartisan agreement: Towards a great power
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.
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'."
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.
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.
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?
Further complicating the nation’s calculations is the declining diversity of the national economy, the ever present challenge of climate change impacting droughts, bushfires and floods, Australia’s energy security and the infrastructure needed to ensure national resilience, prosperity and sovereignty in the 21st century.