Highlighting Australia’s significance as Indo-Pacific middle power

Dr. Renato de Castro, Trustee and Convenor of the National Security and East Asian Affairs Program, Stratbase ADR Institute 

Middle powers have an interest in preserving the international order. They follow the leadership of a relevant great power, but they do so willingly and with alacrity compared with the small powers.

As a general rule, middle powers forgo the attainment of great power status for various reasons such as the urgency to prosper economically or to maintain a fairly adequate military force. Their foreign policies are generally directed toward the limited use of force in international affairs; establishment of new norms of international behavior; and the pursuit of alternative ways of conducting global affairs in contrast with the realpolitik of national interest and foreign policy based upon the doctrine of “might makes right.”

Australia is an important Indo-Pacific middle power that is also a formal treaty ally of the United States and an important partner of Japan in a loose security organization called the Democratic Security Diamond (DSD).

Australia’s foreign policy has a two-pronged thrust: a) focusing its attention on the security of the Indo- Pacific and b) cooperating on capacity-building assistance directed to Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. It underscores the significance of the Indo-Pacific and publicizes a common vision for the region.

Australia has formulated a number of policy initiatives to strengthen its security engagement in the Asia-Pacific. It has also articulated the regional order it wants to promote and protect: First, an Indo-Pacific region where the U.S. plays a dominate security role. Second, upholding the current international liberal order that has underwritten the peace and prosperity of the world since the end of the Second World War. Third, encouraging and assisting like-minded states to play an important role in maintaining the rule of law while at the same time contributing to the maintenance of the Indo-Pacific balance of power.

As a middle power, it is incumbent for Australia to foster closer bilateral ties and links with countries that share its values and interests. In effect, it is no longer depended on one superpower for its security and instead seeks safety in numbers.

Australia finds it urgent to proactively nurture such convocations of like-minded states to offset China’s growing power and an expected decline in American influence in the Indo-Pacific. Among the like-minded states Australia wants to partner with, in maintaining the current international order, are the 10 member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The Special Australia-ASEAN Summit

From March 17 to 18, Australia hosted a summit meeting with the 10 member-states of ASEAN. As the host, Australia declared its intention to foster close economic and security ties with the ASEAN states and warned against trade protectionism.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull saw ASEAN as a partner to promote free trade in the region in a way that the other economic powers, such as the U.S. and China, cannot do without generating suspicious and further division given the two great powers’ increasing geo-strategic competition.

Australia and the leaders of the ASEAN made a strand against protectionism, calling for the adherence to multilateral trade agreements in the light of an emerging trade war between the U.S. and China. Turnbull proposed another trade agreement that would be an antithesis of protectionism.

The two sides also discussed defense issues like the North Korean nuclear arms and missile program that threaten regional global peace and security. Both parties also called the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of this rogue state.

Australia and ASEAN also discussed the need to jointly address the growing threat of extremist and religious radicalization. During the summit, Australia waned its ASEAN partners about the militants’ use of the encrypted messaging apps to plan terrorist attacks.

Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton told the heads-of-states that the extremists’ and criminals’ use of the “dark web” was a real and dangerous threat confronting intelligence and law-enforcement agencies in recent times. According to him, “the use of encrypted messaging apps by terrorist and criminals is potentially the most significant degradation of intelligence capability in modern times.” He then declared that “the only way to deal with the threat and the increasing use of the internet by groups like the Islamic State to radicalize and recruit new members, is to work together.”

The 800-pound ‘Kangaroo’ in the room: The South China Sea dispute 

Australia has no claim to the South China Sea and has declared its neutrality on the dispute because of its close economic relations with China. However, as a U.S. formal treaty ally and close partner of Japan in the DSD, Australia found it necessary to seek close political and security ties with ASEAN in the face of China’s maritime expansion in East Asia.

Recently, Canberra has become very wary of Chinese building of artificial islands and the militarization of these land features in the South China Sea. It has also been unsettled by the Philippines’ decision to set aside the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration’s decision on the South China Sea dispute and the efforts by President Rodrigo Duterte’s efforts for a rapprochement with China, thus effectively abandoning Vietnam as the only claimant state that is actively opposing China’s maritime expansion in East Asia.

Late last year, Australia spearheaded the revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a loose regional security forum made up of the U.S. Japan, India and Australia. Its goal to foster trust and further habits of cooperation among its members and to ensure that a rules-based order prevails in the Indo-Pacific region rather than one that is based on coercion.

The holding the special summit between Australia and ASEAN is part of the host state’s agenda to highlight and address China’s maritime expansion in the South China Sea. Officially, the summit was supposed to focus on fostering closer economic relations between Australia and ASEAN.

However, Australia made sure that the South China Sea issue would dominate the unofficial agenda of the special summit. A head of summit meeting, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop hailed the role of international law in settling conflicts as she commented her country’s efforts to build a coalition with ASEAN in the face of Chinese expansion in the South China Sea.

Bishop declared that “the rules-based order is designed to regulate behavior and rivalries of and between states, and ensure countries compete fairly and in a way that does not threat others or destabilize the region or the world.” According to her, “it places limitations on the extent to which countries use their economic or military power to impose unfair agreements on less powerful nations.”

At the start of the summit, Turnbull declared that Australia will uphold the rules-based order and international law in the region, including the South China Sea. Australia’s goal during the summit was to get ASEAN on its side as it projected China as a rule-breaker in the dispute despite its decision to begin talks with the regional organization for a code of conduct in the South China Sea.

During a close-door meeting during the summit, Australia and ASEAN agreed to boost defense ties while at the same time emphasizing the importance of non-militarization in the South China Sea.” The joint communique issued at the end of the two-day summit called for self-restraint in the South China Sea, and for the parties to avoid actions that may complicate the situation. Australia also joined its ASEAN partners in urging China to work toward the early conclusion of the code of conduct in the South China Sea.

Along its decision to join the Japanese-led DSD and resurrect the QUAD, Australia’s hosting the Special Australia-ASEAN summit showed that it is a relevant Indo-Pacific middle power that is determined to and capable of upholding the liberal international order in this part of the world.


This article was originally published in philstar.com. Image source: Presidential photo/King Rodriguez.

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