Josephine Warnant | Australian Foreign Policy Fellow
Australia is facing a foreign policy identity crisis. The rise of Indo-Pacific Asia, a declining resource base and complex relationships with the US and China are causing a historical shift in the nation’s status. In a time when Australia must define how it projects power regionally and globally, is the label “middle power” still relevant?
The term middle power has been used throughout history to describe Australia’s role in providing an economic and security link between developed and developing countries. Carl Ungerer suggests that “the middle power concept is perhaps the closest that Australia has ever come to articulating a self-conscious theory of foreign policy.” But with the Morrison government’s focus on Australia becoming a regional leader through the renewal of the Pacific “Step-Up” and the revived Indo-Pacific Quad, the middle power label may no longer be applicable.
Despite having a lineage of at least five hundred years, the term middle power remains difficult to define. The glory days of the term trace back to two brief patches of time at the start and end of the Cold War when medium-sized nations aimed to steer the world away from conflict. Today emerging powers such as South Korea, Indonesia, Turkey and Mexico also claim the middle power label.
There have been many attempts to quantify the term middle power by using the economic, military and population scope of states. The Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index lists middle powers like Japan, South Korea and Australia as having a key approach in common: establishing ties with like-minded countries to increase overall power. Behaviouralists define middle powers by their actions in world affairs. According to this definition middle powers are multilaterally-oriented states who seek negotiation and avoid causing trouble in global affairs. Constructivists suggest that states claim the middle power label as a way of playing a role in international affairs and asserting their power.
The middle power concept has been challenged by Australia’s recent shift in focus towards the Pacific inner ring where Australia is the dominant resident power. This contrasts a previous alignment with the south-east Asian outer ring where Australia works with equals to ensure regional order.
Recently Malaysian Deputy Defence Minister Liew Chin Tong said “I often wonder nowadays where Australia’s Asia dream has gone. At one point, Australia was pushing hard to be considered a part of Asia. That ambition is disappearing.”
This begs the question, is Australia still a middle power or is its focus shifting to become more regionally dominant?
While many cite the early 1990s as the beginning of the use of the term middle power, when the Hawke and Keating government promoted Australia as an activist and independent power, Carl Ungerer cites the use of the term as early as 1945. In his close examination of the term, he suggests that despite its usage fluctuating over time, the middle power concept is still alive and well.
Allan Patience from the East Asia Forum argues that Australia is a middle power and needs to do more to strengthen its role in world affairs. He suggests Australia increase its military and diplomatic resources to act as a middle power in securing east Asia.
But a 2019 study by the Henry Jackson Society found Australia is one of the 10 most powerful nations in the world. By this definition, Australia is more than a middle power in international affairs with its economic, military and regional power making it a pivotal nation in the region.
Australia’s refocus to the Pacific may be a sign of a shift emphasising regional power. Stephen Kuper writes about Australia becoming a great regional power which would require an increase in the size and capability of the Australian Defence Force.
Currently, there are clear signs that despite Australia’s long heritage as a supposed middle power, the nation will move more towards a focus on achieving regional hegemony. This is supported by the Morrison governments Pacific “Step-up” where the Prime Minister emphasised “returning the Pacific to where it should be – front and centre of Australia’s strategic outlook”.
Josephine Warnant is Young Australians in International Affairs' Australian Foreign Policy Fellow.