As great power competition continues to unfold, the United States has clearly articulated that it expects more of its allies. Following comments by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, it has become clear that Australia has not and will not escape this paradigm shift.
Australia as both a continent and a nation is unique in its position, enjoying relative geographic isolation from the flashpoints of global and regional conflagration of the 20th century.
Blessed with unrivalled resource wealth and industrial potential, the nation has been able to embrace vastly different approaches to the nation’s strategic role and responsibilities, oscillating between policies of forward presence, active intervention and comparative regional isolation and withdrawal post-Vietnam.
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.
Despite Australia's record period of economic, political and strategic stability, all good things must come to an end, as the perfect storm of both devastating bushfires locally, and now the global recession triggered by the outbreak of the coronavirus has shattered any pretense Australia had to being an 'advanced economy' and 'developed country'.
Additionally, as the global balance of power – across the economic, political and strategic spectrum – continues to evolve, Australia's position in the global order is in a constant state of flux. Most notably, the nation has received the tap on the shoulder, with US President Donald Trump calling for an expansion of the G7, with Australia the top of the list.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, via a spokesperson, confirmed the request from the US President, saying, "There has been contact between the US and the Prime Minister about a G7 invitation.
"The G7 has been a topic of recent high-level exchanges. Australia would welcome an official invitation. Strengthening international co-operation among like-minded countries is valued at a time of unprecedented global challenges."
Australia's inclusion in the G7 would mark a major milestone in the nation's position as a post-Second World War 'middle power' essential to the longevity and sustainability of the economic, political and strategic order that all nations, including China, are dependent upon for the current status quo.
The President's calls for a greater Australian presence and effort on the global stage, with admittance to the G7 just an entry point for a US-backed increase in Australia's presence within the international community.
Supporting this, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, addressing the Henry Jackson Society in London, highlighted a need for greater Australian participation and support, telling a gathering of UK political, policy and intelligence leaders, "We just have to decide if any of those [multilateral institutions] are fit for purpose ... I also think that they're not shaped right for this current confrontation.
"We're going to need the 1 billion-plus people in India, we're going to need the Australians – it's going to take all of these democracies together."
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 IMF to serve both its own interests, while also providing avenues to curry 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 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.
Australia is defined by its economic and strategic relationships with the Indo-Pacific and the 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 21st century’s era of great power competition and global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and chokepoints of south-east Asia annually.
For Australia, a nation defined by this relationship with traditionally larger yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build-up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century’s “great game”.
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.
Australia is consistently told that as a nation we are torn between our economic relationship with China and the longstanding 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?
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 shaking up the nation’s approach to our regional partners.