Is Australia a pivotal power?

My former ASPI colleague Carl Ungerer has pointed out that Doc Evatt first used the term ‘middle power’ at the San Francisco conference that established the United Nations in April 1945. In a recent op-ed I questioned the accuracy and utility of this label for Australia. My thoughts were prompted by a new international grouping launched last month known as MIKTA on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly by a meeting of foreign ministers of ‘middle-power’ countries. But you’ll have to go the foreign ministry websites of South Korea and Turkey to find out about it, because there’s nothing on the DFAT or the Australian Foreign Minister’s websites.

‘MIKTA’ is an acronym for an informal collaboration platform between Mexico, Indonesia, the Republic of Korea, Turkey and Australia. According to South Korea’s foreign ministry:

[a]t the meeting, the five foreign ministers shared the view that in the current situation where challenges facing the international community are becoming more diverse and complex, middle-power countries, which have the willingness and capabilities to contribute to the development of the international community, need to create a cooperation mechanism to address the challenges. They agreed to hold the meeting of middle-power countries’ foreign ministers on a regular basis.

In terms of function, it was decided that MIKTA wouldn’t be a new exclusive bloc, but would function as an ‘unofficial consultation to freely exchange opinions on major global issues’. Mexico serve as a coordinator of MIKTA for a year from 2013.

According to South Korea, MIKTA is expected to:

… serve as a useful forum to discuss a variety of global and regional issues and to explore ways to help resolve them, while maintaining transparency and flexibility… The launch of a new mechanism among middle-power countries, which have a certain level of political and economic status and capabilities, as well as the willingness to contribute to creating a new world order, is expected to help resolve issues facing the international community and maintain world peace.

Turkey pointed out that MIKTA countries are members of the G-20, with open economies and enjoying democratic pluralistic systems. Council of Foreign Relations’ Korean analyst Scott Snyder suggests that MIKTA might be able to play a helpful role within the G-20.

Yet I’d argue that putting the ‘middle power’ label to the forefront of the MIKTA grouping isn’t helpful to Australia. Instead, I’d agree with former foreign minister Alexander Downer, who described Australia as a ‘considerable’ power and a ‘significant’ country.

In the South Pacific (a quarter of the earth’s surface) we’re a superpower, and we’re a major player in the Indian Ocean (Australia has the largest area of maritime jurisdiction in the Indian Ocean region) and in  Southeast Asia. In fact, we’re a top tier player in the southern hemisphere.

When Australia’s claim to the Antarctic landmass is included, Australia becomes the country with the largest jurisdictional claim to an area of the earth’s surface—around 27.2 million km2, of which about half is over ocean or sea.

We’re 12th largest economy (in GDP terms, thus the 12th largest contributor to the United Nations), the 5th wealthiest nation (GDP per capita, current US dollars) and 51(out of 214) in population. We’ve got the 12th largest defence budget and 10th largest defence expenditure as percentage of GDP from OECD countries.

We’re the eighth largest aid donor country. In a world where economics and strategic issues rule, values and soft power still have a crucial role to play in international relations, especially for a country like Australia. The significance of what influence our aid program buys us in in particular places and at particular times, (and the way it’s perceived by Australia’s OECD colleagues), is very much under-rated.

So I’d suggest that we’re at the very least an ‘upper middle’ country, and certainly not ‘lower upper middle’  (to adapt a nice line on Britain’s class system). But a better label for Australia might be pivotal.

As characterised by global analysis company Oxford Analytica, pivotal powers are those countries that by virtue of their strategic location, size of population, economic potential, policy preferences and political weighting, are destined to shape the contours of geopolitics in key regions of the world as well as constitute important nodes of global economic growth. We shouldn’t limit our ambition by resting comfortably under the ‘middle power’ label.

Anthony Bergin is deputy director at ASPI.

In terms of function, it was decided that MIKTA wouldn’t be a new exclusive bloc, but would function as an ‘unofficial consultation to freely exchange opinions on major global issues’. Mexico serve as a coordinator of MIKTA for a year from 2013.

According to South Korea, MIKTA is expected to:

… serve as a useful forum to discuss a variety of global and regional issues and to explore ways to help resolve them, while maintaining transparency and flexibility… The launch of a new mechanism among middle-power countries, which have a certain level of political and economic status and capabilities, as well as the willingness to contribute to creating a new world order, is expected to help resolve issues facing the international community and maintain world peace.

Turkey pointed out that MIKTA countries are members of the G-20, with open economies and enjoying democratic pluralistic systems. Council of Foreign Relations’ Korean analyst Scott Snyder suggests that MIKTA might be able to play a helpful role within the G-20.

Yet I’d argue that putting the ‘middle power’ label to the forefront of the MIKTA grouping isn’t helpful to Australia. Instead, I’d agree with former foreign minister Alexander Downer, who described Australia as a ‘considerable’ power and a ‘significant’ country.

In the South Pacific (a quarter of the earth’s surface) we’re a superpower, and we’re a major player in the Indian Ocean (Australia has the largest area of maritime jurisdiction in the Indian Ocean region) and in  Southeast Asia. In fact, we’re a top tier player in the southern hemisphere.

When Australia’s claim to the Antarctic landmass is included, Australia becomes the country with the largest jurisdictional claim to an area of the earth’s surface—around 27.2 million km2, of which about half is over ocean or sea.

We’re 12th largest economy (in GDP terms, thus the 12th largest contributor to the United Nations), the 5th wealthiest nation (GDP per capita, current US dollars) and 51(out of 214) in population. We’ve got the 12th largest defence budget and 10th largest defence expenditure as percentage of GDP from OECD countries.

We’re the eighth largest aid donor country. In a world where economics and strategic issues rule, values and soft power still have a crucial role to play in international relations, especially for a country like Australia. The significance of what influence our aid program buys us in in particular places and at particular times, (and the way it’s perceived by Australia’s OECD colleagues), is very much under-rated.

So I’d suggest that we’re at the very least an ‘upper middle’ country, and certainly not ‘lower upper middle’  (to adapt a nice line on Britain’s class system). But a better label for Australia might be pivotal.

As characterised by global analysis company Oxford Analytica, pivotal powers are those countries that by virtue of their strategic location, size of population, economic potential, policy preferences and political weighting, are destined to shape the contours of geopolitics in key regions of the world as well as constitute important nodes of global economic growth. We shouldn’t limit our ambition by resting comfortably under the ‘middle power’ label.

Anthony Bergin is deputy director at ASPI.

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