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Chess Pieces

Time for Australia to stop calling itself a 'middle power'

By Anthony Bergin

We are regularly told by our foreign policy decision-makers that we're a middle power in the international system, but that we "punch above our weight".

Indeed, there's a unity ticket here: both major political parties use the middle power descriptor, not wishing to suggest that we're a major power or wanting Australia to be seen as some sort of hero with an inflated opinion of our own importance in global affairs. At the same time, the middle power moniker invokes a quiet pride in our citizens and greater support for our decision-makers.

But as countries jockey much more for international influence, a just-released audit of geopolitical capability has found Australia is one of the 10 most powerful nations in the world with a strong case for us to replace Russia and restore the G7 to the G8.

The Henry Jackson Society in the UK looked at 33 indicators and 1240 pieces of data to assess the geopolitical capability of the Group of 20 nations, plus Nigeria. The United States headed the rankings with the United Kingdom ahead of China, France and Germany. Japan was in sixth position followed by Canada and Australia. That put us just ahead of India and Russia. The study found that we're more politically powerful than Russia because we are a "hemispheric power" capable of projecting ourselves and defending our own interests within the southern hemisphere.

James Rogers, the study's chief analyst, noted that our burgeoning economy (we've completed 27 consecutive years of annual economic growth) and a strengthened military have helped secure our position as a major world player. He suggests that Australia has profited from our links to the Anglosphere and that further investment in the Five-Eyes intelligence sharing arrangement could help us rise even higher. Rogers points out that on cultural power– our ability to attract others to our cause, our narrative to shape and influence global discourse or ideas and ideology – we're ranked fourth in the world. Last year Australia was ranked 10th globally on the Soft Power study index by Portland Communications.

...Australia is more than a middle power in international affairs...

The Henry Jackson Society study's main finding is surely right: Australia is more than a middle power in international affairs. There are very few countries that can lay claim to having the depth and breadth of influence as Australia.

We're a top-tier player in the southern hemisphere, and in the South Pacific (a quarter of the Earth's surface) we're a superpower. We're a major player in the Indian Ocean (we have the largest area of maritime jurisdiction in the Indian Ocean region) and in south-east Asia.

When Australia's claim in Antarctica is included, Australia becomes the country with the largest jurisdictional claim in the world. Our undisputed claim covers around 27.2 million square kilometres, of which about half is over sea. We're 13th largest economy (in GDP terms, thus the 13th largest contributor to the United Nations), the 11th 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 a percentage of GDP in the OECD. One of the major factors driving Australia up the geopolitical capability index is our $200 billion defence investment program over the next decade.

Australia is the number-one global exporter of iron ore, coal and unwrought lead and the second largest exporter of aluminium ores. We're the second largest exporter of beef, the third largest exporter of sugar and the largest global exporter of wool.

We're the 13th largest aid donor. 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 influence our aid program buys us in particular places and at particular times is very much under-rated.

Australia is a pivotal country. 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.

The Henry Jackson Society' s overall finding is spot on: we're one of the few countries in the world that's well positioned internationally by successfully bringing together our economic, diplomatic, military and cultural capabilities.

The trick will be to continue to work to ensure our significance is widely appreciated by leveraging those capabilities to remain an influential nation, and not just in the Indo-Pacific.

Originally published by: The Australian Financial Review on 08 Jan 2019