Judging by his output, ASPI’s Anthony Bergin likes nothing more than to test ideas in relation to Australia’s strategic positioning. His recent proposition that Australia is not so much a ‘middle power’ but a ‘pivotal power’ is a case in point.
Bergin’s argument is that the common strategic descriptor for Australia as a ‘middle power’ doesn’t accurately reflect its military size or capability, the size of its economy or its strategic reach. In each of these he is correct.
However, the term ‘pivotal power’ is complex and has some existing meaning. One understanding has it meaning more than just being relatively strategically strong. One such approach defines it not as a quantitative assessment of strategic power but as being a geographic arbiter.
Australia’s relativity to Turkey, as Bergin notes, classifies them both as middle powers. But Turkey’s role with its neighbours, particularly Syria, Iraq and Israel, also mark it as a key regional actor and so it’s also considered to be a pivotal power. Closer to home, Indonesia occupies an arbitrating role in the ASEAN regions as well as in relations with Timor-Leste and Australia.
By comparison, Australia is a regional strategic power in the Southwest Pacific, but perhaps less so than it has been. In part this is due to the increasing sense of independence of some of the Pacific island states. In part it’s also due to the more active soft power role being played by China in the region, which in turn buttresses this sense of independence—at least from Australia.
Timor-Leste, though geographically close to Australia and a major recipient of Australian aid and, at times, military assistance, has carved an increasingly independent path. Timor-Leste’s foreign policy, is one of having a number of strong friends, so that it remains cosseted by some should relations with one turn sour.
Australia’s status in Timor-Leste has diminished, while that of Indonesia has increased. Timor-Leste’s police now train with Indonesian police, and there’s an agreement that their armed forces also train together. Australia provides training to, but it does not train with, Timor-Leste’s defence force.
Given Australia’s active participation in recent multilateral conflicts and being a preferred site for training by regional military officers, Australia’s strategic status is, on balance, perhaps slightly stronger—or perceived as such—than it has been. It’s not surprising that the perceptions of Australia’s status have shifted; in a strategic environment always in a state of flux, the precise status of any state will remain variable and, more to the point, interpretable.
But if Australia was to suddenly disappear from the strategic stage, the question is the extent to which it might matter. If the imagined effect is profound, then Bergin would be correct and Australia is indeed a pivotal state, if in its own peculiar way.
But perhaps, too, sitting on the edge of a region rapidly growing in importance, Australia’s task might be less to assert its significance and, one might suggest, more to work at ensuring what significance it has is more fully appreciated. In this, Bergin gives us much to ponder.
Damien Kingsbury is a Professor at Deakin Unviersity, and Director, Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights.