Can Australia maintain its middle power status in the Asian Century?

ⓒ Image: US Dept of State (Wikipedia)

Australia is a middle power. Its economy is usually ranked around 12th in the world, and according to the Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index, it is the 9th-strongest military power in the Asia-Pacific region. Also, it is a member of G20 and has often played a leading role in establishing influential global and regional multilateral institutions, such as the Cairns Group. Most notably, Australia is a member of the recently-formed middle power group, known as MIKTA. All five members of this group are believed to have substantial hard power. In the Pacific region, Australia is the strongest military power as well as the biggest economic power by a long way. Its political influence over Pacific macro states is immense.

Australia is a middle power not only in quantitative terms but also in qualitative-normative terms. Its past and present political leaders have steadfastly defined their country as a middle power and insisted that Australia’s foreign policy should be ‘middle power diplomacy’, which aims to gather ‘like-minded’ countries to promote multilateralism and maintain rules-based international system. As the former Prime Minister of Australia Kevin Rudd called for, Australia has sought to become a creative middle power ‘in bringing together major, regional and small powers to shape and implement solutions’ to global challenges.

And the results were usually fine. For a number of times, Australia, through multilateralism, succeeded in leading other middle and small states to deal with global and regional security issues, such as irregular migration and WMD proliferation. And as the then Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Gareth Evans correctly argued, Australia’s success in promoting active and durable international cooperation in managing various security challenges was possible due to its highly recognised middle power status. Indeed, its reputation as a leading middle power has effectively induced other ‘like-minded’ countries to participate in Canberra-led multilateral cooperation. The establishment of the Australia Group is just one example among several.

It is therefore so natural that many Australians tend to take their country’s middle power status for granted and almost dislike intrusive questioning about the proposition that Australia is a credible middle power. What they overlook, however, is that this proposition is a conditional one based on a critical premise – America remains the hegemonic power indefinitely and its leadership in Asia stays unchallenged. And the proposition can always be wrong if that premise is no longer valid.

For more than half of a century, the US-led regional order in Asia has enabled Australia to retain its middle power position without much effort. Under American leadership, Australia’s economy has enjoyed sustained strong growth, and this good performance has largely relied on China’s peaceful economic development within the US-led liberal international system. In other words, China’s acceptance of American primacy has kept Australia’s economy buoyant. Meanwhile, Australia has derived substantial benefits from its alliance with America, including access to military hardware and intelligence not available within its national resources.

Australia’s close relationship with America has not only enhanced its economic and military power, but has also helped boost its political clout in international affairs. The more America valued Australia, the more respect Australia received from other countries and the more influence Australia could have and exert in the international arena. As America’s ally, Australia has often involved American interests in its foreign policy to a greater or lesser degree, and that certainly contributed to inducing others in the international community to strain their ears to Australia’s voice.

Hence, it is quite correct to argue that Australia is a dependent middle power whose relative power in both quantitative and qualitative terms is overly dependent on America. This conclusion then leads to an uncomfortable question: Can Australia remain a middle power in the Asian century where America’s primacy in Asia no longer exists?

In the Asian century, Australia would find itself situated in a very different, and certainly more contested, region where the sources of its economic and military power gradually disappear. This is not an overly pessimistic view. As China’s power grows, it is becoming more frustrated with its place in the old US-led international order in Asia and thus wants to transform the order in its own image. America, particularly under the Trump presidency, is not happy with China’s blueprint for Asia’s future and is determined to preserve the status quo. And their rivalry is destabilising Asia’s order which has made Australia strong and wealthy.

Australia is stuck in the middle between its security guarantor and its largest trading partner and thus it would find increasingly difficult to maintain both military and economic strength that enabled its credibility as a middle power. And if Australia wants to avoid gradual decline towards small power status, it should make the effort to increase its relative power in both quantitative and qualitative terms ‘without American support’.

First and foremost, Australia should enhance its self-reliant defence capability by increasing defence spending. This is what successive Australian governments have consistently aimed, but unfortunately it has hardly been accomplished yet. If Australia wants to stay as a middle power, it should stay as a strong military power, not as strong as great powers though.

Rudd emphasised that Australia’s military capability has facilitated its credibility and responsibility as “a capable middle power that is able to contribute to global and regional security”. The question is whether the country can retain that capability without American support while spending only about 2% of GDP.

Reinforcing its armed forces is vital but that, of course, would not be enough to solve the problem. More is needed. Australia, as Evans argued, must continue to employ its middle power strategy of “coalition building around particular issues with like-minded countries”.

The strategy is two-fold. First, Australia’s foreign policy should always focus on particular issue areas. There are two clear merits for this: (a) Australia can concentrate its resources on issues of importance so to generate the best returns, and (b) it can have a better chance to take a leading role in addressing such issues. This is what ‘niche diplomacy’ is about.

Secondly, Canberra must strengthen its diplomatic and strategic ties with other countries, particularly those in Asia, that share common concerns, interests and values with Australia. To be a credible middle power in the Asian century without American leadership, Australia must further develop its own ability to win others over to its side. In other words, it should enhance its international political influence, which at present, is considerably dependent on Washington. And this can be done through the use of existing multilateral institutions. In particular, Australia can use the MIKTA as a platform for building strong, trustworthy and durable relationships with two other important Asian middle powers, namely Indonesia and South Korea.

Some believe that Australia can achieve a reasonable balance between the US and China. They say that Australia can bandwagon economically with China while relying on America to ensure its security. This is a strategy of bandwagoning with different great powers on different areas. This is what the Turnbull Government is now trying to do.

The problem, however, is that this kind of Middle Power bandwagoning will not work because neither Washington nor Beijing would tolerate such an idea. Besides, bandwagoning should not be considered as an option for Australia unless it wants to follow New Zealand’s path.

Australian political leaders should stop ignoring the reality that their country’s middle power future is precarious.