What should you call Australia: a middle power or a top 20 nation? It’s a debate that has been going on for a while now, and is largely driven by whoever is in power. The question is not useful in itself – and is largely a matter of political taste – but using it to explore Australia’s place in the world, and its region, can be illuminating.
Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd liked the “middle power” tag for Australia. Julie Bishop prefers “top 20 nation,” a tag debuted not so long before Australia hosted the G20. So, which one? The former term has a lengthy history. The latter builds on ideas put forward by previous Liberal foreign ministers that Australia is more important than middle, or middling.
Again, the either/or debate isn’t especially useful. Australia is clearly both. Its partners in the newish middle power grouping MIKTA – Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Turkey and Australia – are all G20 members. They are also all of regional strategic importance and share, they say, strong economies, democratic systems, and an interest in working in the international system.
The discussion around which better suits Australia is still interesting enough to prompt this discussion paper from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute last year. ASPI president Peter Jennings, Australian National University research fellow Andrew Carr – also a “middle power” specialist – and Canberra Times journalist Nic Stuart were some of the contributors. Unsurprisingly, no conclusion was reached. It was the discussion of Australia’s place in the world and what power it has and where that power should be exercised that was of more import than something which, ultimately, comes down to semantics, and taste.
But who wants to call Australia what is instructive for those seeking to understand political divides in Australian foreign affairs. Bishop’s argument against Australia’s middle power status is cogent enough, “middle of what? There are some 186 countries, so that makes us like the ninety-something country.” Though she knows well she’s missing the point to make a bigger one, it’s worth noting that middle powers were never halfway down some mythical ranking system.
But “middle power” sounds ragingly modest, endlessly beige, and the kind of term that, if it were a person, might live with his parents into his 30s and tell you about his sensible car. Melissa Coney-Tyler, director of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, pointed out that for conservatives it is, “terminally unambitious.” Indonesia would never think of itself that way, she noted, “Its view of itself is as a negara besar, a big power.” (Though Indonesia is a member of middle power supergroup MIKTA). Rudd liked it for its consensus-building, international engagement sound, and it was useful to deploy during bids to get a seat at the UN Security Council.
The thing about “top 20” is that it clearly pushes Australia into the top tier without noting its place within that 20. If it’s predicated on the G20 then the basis for Australia’s importance is economic and concepts of power take second place. But any nation’s place in the international order is also defined by its defense capabilities. Australia ranked 12th in the world in terms of defense spending in 2012, yes, but that is probably not what Bishop was getting at. And if the basis is economic, what might happen should other nations catch up and it falls out of the G20 a few decades hence? Given regional strengths it might still remain a middle power, if not a G20 nation.
“Top twenty” shares ideas of Australia’s special importance with former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer’s demarcations of Australia being a “considerable” nation, or, “by any measure Australia is a significant country.”
In a 2006 speech, Downer rolled out an impressive list of numbers and stats to bolster the argument. Among them were: sixth largest by landmass, 10th largest industrialized economy, 10 percent of the world’s biodiversity, and 12th largest military expenditure. Australia has produced a good number of Olympians, too.
Well, so what? Pick the best aspects and achievements of any nation and you could call it considerable. Australia also has two of the world’s largest flightless birds and 1,500 types of spider. But this reflexive grab for numbers to bolster the punching-above-our-weight case that has always been the flip side to the “cultural cringe” seems often like the game-plan of an also-ran. How many of those numbers matter in the international arena? Greenland is big, too. Australia’s large maritime jurisdiction is more interesting to the case than the size of the continent alone but what matters is what is done in those waters, not just that they are Australia’s.
“Middle power” at least has the advantage of including the concept of “power.” How much of that does Australia have and where does, or should, it use it is possibly the more useful question.
The 2013 Defense White Paper managed to outline the areas in terms of importance: home defense, regional security work and, then, a global role. Currently numbers one and three have been conflated somewhat by the government: international terror fighting by sending troops to Iraq tied to routing the terror scourge from home. Prime Minister Tony Abbott said just that last week as Australian troops departed for Iraq. It seems under the current government that a stronger global role is being given precedence, from going to Iraq to loudly “standing up” to Putin, though events of the past 12 months have certainly compelled this.
And, as one writer in the ASPI discussion put it, “We’re expected to lead in maintaining stability in our nearer region. We’re expected to make a significantly better than symbolic contribution to Coalition operations in the Middle East. We’re expected to have views that matter in the United Nations Security Council, North Asia, the Indian Ocean Region, and as a NATO ‘enhanced partner’.”
How exhausting. Yet, flattering? Still, it all sounds rather… significant. But what is Australia’s role in its region and what, exactly, is that region? Certainly efforts in Timor-Leste in 1999 and 2006 and the Solomons in 2003 showed Australia’s value to the region as something of a local power and arbiter.
Australia is a regional superpower, but that region is the Pacific before it is Southeast Asia where Australian influence has been declining for some time. Relations with Indonesia, Australian policy scholars agree, need to be better. They have needed to be so for decades now. Whether Indonesia’s nearing execution of two drug-trafficking Australians will throw up more roadblocks is hard to say. The nation has already suggested Australian reaction to save its nationals are damaging ties.
What about the Asian Century? There are three new FTAs with major Asian economies and talks of deepening ties with Japan thanks to the on-off possibility of a submarine deal. Yet as has been mentioned in these pages before “China” is too often conflated with “Asia.” And China” is limited to the evergreen economic promise of China’s rising middle class. Much of last year’s coverage of the free trade agreement (FTA) with China focused on this; there were grand hopes for Aussie goods such as wine or varied services.
But Southeast Asia is often forgotten. There has been a slow retreat by universities from Southeast Asian studies. A recent Canberra Times article pointed out that the Australian National University’s school of Culture, History and Language is running at a loss and redundancies for staff may be on the cards, meaning many teaching Asian languages may be forced out. If Australia is serious about engagement with the region, knowledge of its languages is important. In fact, Tony Abbott said as much in 2012, when still in Opposition.
And the Pacific? Australia’s influence in the South Pacific has been waning for some time even as threats emanating from it are growing, according to Colonel Peter Brown, of the British Army, in a 2012 paper. He wrote that the Pacific didn’t register much for Australia until after 2001. There were no credible threats from the region and “the Australian view seemed to be that the region was just a burden on the Australian taxpayer.” But as WHO noted and Kevin Rudd pointed out in 2006 – before he was prime minister – the area became “an arc of instability” where Australia’s influence had declined, possibly when it was most needed. Ensuring good governance and policing in the area has long been an Australian focus to ensure stability and prevent transnational crime.
That Australia may have some regional policeman role is seemingly taken as read, both within and without Australia. Of course, Canberra hasn’t influenced some events in Fiji as it may have liked and China’s growing influence there is a worry, also. Australia’s lack of interest in climate change policy is a problem for many low-lying and small Pacific nations.
Despite the Coalition’s outward contempt for Kevin Rudd’s love of an international role and bigger role in global institutions when in opposition, there has been much international engagement, from enthusiastic support of MIKTA to new FTAs with major Asian economies, the hosting of the G20, and a seat at the UN Security Council, which Julie Bishop would like to renew. Even Australia’s hosting of the Asian Cup deserves a mention. These were all things undertaken by previous governments but their enthusiastic continuation has been under the aegis of the Coalition. There is also the just-announced membership of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), despite previously turning down membership thanks to U.S. pressure.
The establishment of MIKTA or the Mexico Indonesia, Korea, Turkey and Australia grouping is one that bolsters middle power ideas. What is actually notable here is that “middle power” has ceased to be an appellation used only by Canada and Australia. It is now embraced by Asian nations, and others (even if Indonesia still does not quite see itself as only middle or middling) which gives it more credence, not less.
MIKTA, as its own press says, is “comprised of important actors” and, as they’d like you to know, they came together of their own volition, unlike BRICS which was a useful acronym that later became the 2000s definition of developing economy – and now a large bank. MIKTA nations are all middle powers that share democratic ideals. They also all have close ties to the U.S. What they can, or even plan to, achieve, has not been set out, as yet, past the idea that together they can achieve… things.
If anyone still remembers how the BRICS grouping started, it was not a choice by the five nations but a grouping named by investment bank. The nations later saw the value in banding together. MIKTA, on the other hand, exists because its members wished it so. There is much good there, if a good degree of PR pablum in anything you’ll read they’ve authored about themselves. But, as Melissa Coney-Tyler points out, “The issue for MIKTA is finding areas where it can have influence and contribute. This will also be a matter of domestic politics: the stars have to align for all five to feel comfortable taking on a contentious issue.” As yet, they have not done that though meetings have been held on the sidelines of the G20.
Of course there have been the inevitable areas where Australia’s regional and global role has been rolled back. There was the dismantling of the Australia Network across Asia. There are massive slashes to the foreign aid budget and there is lagging climate change commitments, one area in which Australia and its closest ally the U.S. are at public odds. But it was Tony Abbott’s G20 address that really revived ideas of Australia’s terminal lack of ambition and gained international coverage. He spoke about citizens’ complaints over the budget and a A$7 “co-payment” for doctors’ visits that were previously free. Why not use an occasion to address world leaders on Australia’s ideas of its place in the world and the contributions it could make as a Top 20 nation? It seemed a case of ultimately, the same reflexive terminal lack of ambition that infects ideas about middle power: It seems too close to middling.
Helen Clark was based in Hanoi for six years as a reporter and magazine editor. She has written for two dozen publications including The Diplomat (as Bridget O’Flaherty), Time, The Economist, the Asia Times Online and the Australian Associated Press.