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The role of Middle Powers in Asia's future

Panel Presentation by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, Chancellor of the Australian National University and former Australian Foreign Minister to Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity, Jeju, Republic of Korea, 1 June 2017

‘Middle powers’ are best described as those states which are not economically or militarily big or strong enough, either in their own regions or the wider world, to impose their policy preferences on anyone else – but which are nonetheless sufficiently capable, credible and motivated to be able to make an impact on international relations.

‘Middle power’ language has no connotation at all of mediocrity or insignificance.

  • Although usually now used to refer to states located on the spectrum between, at one end, ‘great’ powers’ (US and China, and arguably still Russia, if only because of its nuclear arsenal) and ‘major’ powers (like India, Japan and Germany), and ‘small’ powers at the other, the description certainly includes the new MIKTA grouping – Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey and Australia, who are all members of the G20, and have economies ranked as the 11th, 13th, 15th, 16th and 18th largest in the world.
  • But the description can also include some quite small states, like Norway, and I would certainly say, in our own region, Singapore. There is no standard list of current middle powers, or any commonly agreed list of objective measures – like population size, GDP, or military budgets – distinguishing middle powers from others. What matters more is the kind of diplomacy typically practised (though this can wax and wane with changes of government) by a relatively small and distinctive group of states – with Canada, Australia and the Scandinavians most often described as the model.

Such ‘middle power diplomacy’ has a characteristic motivation and method:

  • Characteristic motivation is belief in the utility, and necessity, of acting cooperatively with others in addressing international challenges, particularly those global public goods problems which by their nature cannot be solved by any country acting alone, however big and powerful.
  • Characteristic diplomatic method is coalition building with ‘like-minded’ – those who, whatever their prevailing value systems, share specific interests and are prepared to work together to do something about them.

The contributions middle powers, so acting, can make to better international relations include:

  • agenda setting: bringing new ideas to the table (which bigger players carrying too much baggage, or too stuck in their ways, to embrace – eg in our own region, creation of APEC and ARF, and Aust-Indonesia initiated peace plan for Cambodia)
  • bridge-building: between developed and developing countries (one of major aspirations of MIKTA)
  • building critical masses of support for global or regional public goods, and rule-based international order, policy change (e.g. climate change; the responsibility to protect (‘R2P’) against mass atrocity crimes; and arms control treaties, like those abolishing cluster bombs and land mines, and also hopefully now nuclear weapons elimination – although some of key middle powers giving greater weight to being US allies than good global citizens).

How effective middle powers can be in making a difference depends on a number of factors, including:

  • resources: need reasonably wide network of diplomatic posts, and officials with energy and stamina
  • creativity: what middle powers lack in economic, political or military clout can often make up for with quick diplomatic footwork: evident in Asian region, e.g. again in creation of new security and economic architecture (APEC, ARF, EAS), and Cambodia peace
  • credibility: need to avoid hypocrisy, by practising at home what preach abroad (within MIKTA, Turkey in danger of losing that on democracy and human rights issues; Indonesia will need to take care with rising Islamist intolerance). Allies of great powers, like Australia, have to be perceived as having some real independence – not just acting as cipher or stalking horse for a protector
  • opportunity: while there have been many past examples in our region of effective middle power diplomacy, we have to recognise that in an Asian setting, where great or major power rivalry – above all now between China and the US, but also Japan and China, China and India, India and Pakistan – provides so much of the context and dynamics, the scope for middle powers to be really influcntial, on the big peace and security issues in particular, may be limited.

While recognising the reality of limited opportunity,let me offer three examples where the middle powers of this region – including Australia and South Korea – could, in my judgement, have a significant impact:

  • Setting the agenda for the East Asian Summit, which has all the ingredients to become the preeminent regional dialogue and policy-making body, containing as it now does all the major regional players (including now the United States and Russia), meeting at leader-level, and mandated to address both economic and political issues. Its eighteen members include a majority of middle powers – most of the ASEANs, Australia and South Korea (and New Zealand could also be so described, because of its tradition of multilateral activism).
  • If ASEAN could better harness its collective middle-power energy and capacity it could be a more influential and effective regional security player than it now is: in particular pushing back in the South China Sea against China’s increasingly assertive encroachment. While China manifestly does not want to provoke violent conflict anywhere, it is clearly intent on recreating as much of historic, hegemonic, tributary relationship with its southern neighbours as it can get away with, and a united front of middle powers might be more effective in resisting this than relying on an increasingly erratic United States.
  • Some of us are in a position to influence the nuclear weapons debate. Had Australia and South Korea (along with our larger neighbour Japan) been willing to support President Obama’s move toward a ‘No First Use’ commitment, the world might have taken a significant step toward reducing the salience and legitimacy of the most indiscriminately inhumane and existentially threatening weapons ever invented (though the support of Central and Eastern Europe NATO allies would probably also have been necessary). Certainly US allies should be participating, in a way most of us have refused to do, in the negotiations now under way in New York under UN auspices for a nuclear weapons ban treaty.

Raw economic and political power will always count for a lot in international affairs. But it does not count for everything. Middle powers with a sense of where they want to go, and with the credibility, resources, and energy to follow through, can have a major impact in making this region and the wider world safer and saner. That is the challenge for Korea and all of us represented on this platform, and I believe we can deliver on it.