Thinking Beyond Politics

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, the 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 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) a focus on the security of the Indo-Pacific; and b) 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, that is, a region where the US plays a dominant security role and where the current international liberal order that has underwritten the peace and prosperity of the world since the end of the Second World War is upheld. It is an order that also encourages and assists like-minded states to play an important role in maintaining the rule of law.

As a middle power, Australia is no longer dependent on one superpower for its security and instead seeks safety in numbers. Thus, to offset China’s growing power and an expected decline in American influence in the Indo-Pacific. Among the like-minded states it wants to partner with are the 10-member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

From March 17 to 18, Australia hosted a summit meeting with the 10-member states of ASEAN. 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 US 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 US and China.

The two sides also discussed defense issues, like the North Korean nuclear threat, the growing risk of extremist and religious radicalization in the region, and the South China Sea row.

Australia has declared its neutrality on the sea dispute because of its close economic relations with China. However, as a US formal treaty 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 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.

Late last year, Australia even spearheaded the revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a loose regional security forum made up of the US, Japan, India, and Australia, to ensure that a rules-based order prevails in the Indo-Pacific region rather than one that is based on coercion.

Officially, the summit was supposed to focus on foster closer economic relations between Australia and ASEAN, but Australia made sure that the South China Sea issue would dominate its unofficial agenda.

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. Minister Bishop said: “the rules-based order is designed to regulate behavior and rivalries of and between states” and “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, Prime Minister Turnbull made it clear that Australia’s goal during the summit was to get ASEAN on its side.

During a closed-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 for the early conclusion of the code of conduct in the South China Sea.

Clearly, 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 and capable of upholding the liberal international order in this part of the world.


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