The Debate

MIKTA and Middle Power Diplomacy in the South China Sea

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The Debate

MIKTA and Middle Power Diplomacy in the South China Sea

The group of middle powers could potentially play an important role in the South China Sea disputes.

MIKTA and Middle Power Diplomacy in the South China Sea
Credit: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website

MIKTA – an association consisting of Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Turkey, and Australia – is still a relatively new platform, having been formed in 2013, but it may now be confronted with its first real opportunity to have an impact on the global stage. The South China Sea is quickly becoming a tinder box capable of igniting the next great power war. Three of the MIKTA members – Indonesia, Korea, and Australia – have a direct interest in reducing tensions in the region, and all would be adversely affected if one miscalculation turns into a large scale conflict.

In all likelihood, though, none of the individual members of this association could impact the developments in the South China Sea alone. Case in point is Australia, rebuked by the Chinese media for speaking out on China’s land reclamation efforts. Meanwhile, Korea has been called out by the U.S. for not exerting enough effort on the South China Sea issue. Korea is understandingly reluctant to choose between its military alliance partner in the U.S. and its largest trading partner in China when its diplomatic effort alone is unlikely to lead to any real progress. However, the combined effort of MIKTA members could prove crucial in easing tensions and finding a peaceful solution to the territorial disputes. The key to achieving this will be the MIKTA members making effective use of middle power diplomacy.

Middle powers and middle power diplomacy is a relatively new concept in international relations, emerging following the end of the Cold War. Defining a middle power is tricky, but one approach is to view a state’s capacity as compared with other states. Thus, the MIKTA countries can all be classified as middle powers as they can all be dubbed regional powers but find it difficult to play a large role internationally. Statements released by MIKTA also point to their desire to be classified as middle powers and to pursue middle power diplomacy, defined by Cooper, Higgott, and Nossal as the “tendency to pursue multilateral solutions to international problems, [the] tendency to embrace compromise positions in international disputes, and [the] tendency to embrace notions of ‘good international citizenship’ to guide its diplomacy.” MIKTA reflects this clearly in its vision statement: “We will play the role of an agenda-setter and assume a constructive role on the global stage. We will make joint efforts for building norms, developing guidelines, sharing best practices and forging collective responses in a manner agreeable to all MIKTA members.”

While the main goal of MIKTA may be to serve as a global forum for solving emerging global issues, promoting global norms, and facilitating communication between various regions, it has already shown a willingness to inject itself into pressing global issues, in particular North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests. In April 2014, MIKTA issued a communiqué expressing, “grave concern over the recent ballistic missile launches by North Korea,” and stated its agreement with UN Security Council resolutions calling for North Korea to “dismantle all its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, including its uranium enrichment program, in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner.”

Not surprisingly, the statement did little to move the needle on the North Korea issue. That highlights the weakness of MIKTA, namely that until now, the group itself and the status of its member states as so-called middle powers has been largely ignored by greater powers, particularly the U.S. and China. For example, Scott Synder argues that while the U.S. will continue to demand more of South Korea as an alliance partner, “there has not been a formal U.S. recognition or policy toward middle powers as a group, nor is there evidence that middle powerness as an attribute has been consequential to U.S. foreign policy toward countries that classify themselves in this way.” This is seen in the North Korea issue: Despite calls by MIKTA as an organization, or efforts by South Korea as a middle power, nothing seems to be able to budge the U.S. from its North Korea policy of “strategic patience.”

It is this lack of recognition that encouraged the MIKTA states to decide to band together and form a formal association. Individually, they are regional powers with confined spheres of influence that lack significant leverage to change the course of world events. Together, assuming they can agree on what is in their collective best interest, they have significantly greater leverage. And the fact that the member states hail from different regions and individually have sway with different actors means that they can exert more leverage over other states, including potentially the U.S. and China.

So when it comes to the South China Sea, does MIKTA have a collective interest in exerting leverage to ensure a peaceful resolution to the territorial disputes plaguing the region? From the individual state perspective, Indonesia certainly as an interest in peacefully resolving this issue, as China’s nine-dash line overlaps with its exclusive economic zone. South Korea could see itself pulled into a U.S.-China confrontation due to its alliance commitments, and following the recent statement by U.S. President Barrack Obama confirming that the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands fall under the purview of the U.S.-Japan security treaty, this possibility seems slightly more likely. Australia has stepped up its rhetoric against Chinese land reclamation efforts over the summer with an obvious interest in maintaining freedom of the seas to protect its trade routes. Turkey and Mexico have no apparent direct interest, but both have economic or military ties with the U.S. and China, meaning any sort of major conflict will affect their economies.

But the most crucial factor is whether or not the individual member states have enough faith in their new association to allow them to inject themselves into the South China Sea disputes and play a bridging role between the various claimants. This bridging role is an important aspect of middle power diplomacy and there is a clear need for an honest broker to mediate disputes between claimants in order to calm tensions. But whether or not MIKTA as an association has the willingness to play such a role in the South China Sea and the diplomatic skills to pull it off is still unknown. MIKTA has a prime opportunity to make a positive impact on global politics. Will it step up and be the bridge that the region so desperately needs?

Benjamin Engel is a Research Fellow/Program Officer in the Peace and Security Research Unit at the East Asia Institute (Seoul, South Korea). He is a Ph.D. candidate in East Asian Studies at Seoul National University’s Graduate School of International Studies and holds an MA in Korean Studies from the same school. His research interests include modern Korean history, democratization in East Asia, and U.S. foreign policy.