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Increasing Australia's Middle Power: China

– Sonia Lim

Presently, active debate persists over the classification of countries; whether they should be considered as middle, great, or super powers according to their economic, cultural, military and technological competencies.

In this context, it is generally agreed that middle powers have long been classified as countries that have strong communicative networks, intelligent and diplomatic services to effectively convey their ideas and persuade others for a balance of power. Additionally, middle po

wers tend to build coalitions with states that share the same norms, to achieve their respective priorities in foreign policy.

Australia can be considered as one such middle power, and in the following analysis it will be discussed how Australia can consolidate and develop its middle power status to increase its influence in three main areas; security, economics and culture.

The Quintessential Middle Power

Firstly, it is important to have a realistic perspective on where Australia stands in the global context. While Australia has strong networks to disseminate its ideas effectively, its limited resources imply that it does not have an abundance of influence in key areas of power projection (i.e. security issues). Australia thus focuses its energy on building coalitions and negotiating multilaterally with other states in order to advance their objectives in the international sphere.

In terms of being a dependent middle power, Australia has long been a friend and ally to the United States (US). Australia is regarded as one of the key strategic geopolitical locations for the US in the Indo Pacific region to contain the potential rise of rival powers, China. This implies that should the US go to war with its rivals today, Australia will be compelled by its treaty and alliance obligations to join the US in conflict. While this “old-friend” and familiar alliance may remain popular amongst the public, rationally this partnership carries many unforeseen costs.

As a result of the US-Australian coalition, Australia has joined the US in a variety of global conflicts since the Pacific War. The question thus arises, what has Australia achieved or gained from this pact? The answer; nothing much beyond a stalemate in the Korean War, perpetual involvement within conflicts in the Middle East, and a towering expense on human life and resources. A further consequence this is that Australia has become increasingly portrayed as the USs ‘deputy sheriff’ in Asia; to which Australia has closer geographical and growing need for stronger relations.

To reiterate the contentions of Arthur Tunge, while there exists significant support and confidence within powerful friends [the US] perhaps the cost of being classified as its friend in Asia is too high for Australia to prosper in the future; not just politically but economically too. This view supports Hugh White’s argument that while history has led Australia to being inclined towards collaborating exclusively with the US and not China, Australia’s evolving interests are indicating the opposite.

What’s the solution then?

Maintaining positive relations with China should not be perceived as a negative endeavour. It is true that China does not exactly see Australia as a neutral state, and the two countries have had bumpy relations in the past. In 1971, when Prime Minister Gough Whitlam led an ALP delegation to China he was instantly denounced as a traitor to Australia and the US, only to later discover that America’s Henry Kissinger had earlier visited Beijing on a covert diplomatic mission to apply diplomatic pressure on the Soviet Union. This incident demonstrated the significant need for states to focus on rational calculation, and remain open to potential partners (including previously considered rivals) rather than being constrained by nationalistic ideologies and the tendency to ‘stick to who they have always worked with’. Often longstanding alliances may not always be the most rational option for forward-looking countries; as demonstrated by the unending costs of enjoining with the US in international wars.

Ever since Whitlam recognized Beijing, and the post-1979 economic reforms were enacted under the rise of Deng Xiao Peng, China has emerged as a global economic powerhouse which engages in trade with every country. For instance, China is presently Australia’s most prominent contributor within the resource and education sectors. In all rationality, it is economically very beneficial for Australia to maintain good relations with China.

However, there exist a variety of factors which have the potential to weaken Australia’s relations with China. Anti-Chinese and racist sentiments in Australia has been observed since 1901 when Australia violently maltreated Chinese prospectors, and humiliated them in the Opium War. These sentiments were reinforced and institutionalised by the government throughout the duration of the White Australia policy; designed to effectively bar the immigration of non-Europeans to Australia. Although the White Australia policy was abolished in the 1970s, it is contested that Anti-Chinese sentiment persists within the country. This was illustrated via the appeals of Chinese newspaper Global Times, which has publicly remarked about the various ways in which China is ‘urged’ to make Australia feel the pain for the situation.

As Gareth Evans, (Australia’s Foreign Minister between 1988 to 1996) explains, the fact that nationalism has overtaken rational calculations is exceedingly detrimental for the country. The rise of anti-Chinese sentiments within Australia, ignores the immense economic benefits wrought by Sino-Australian relations. These overtly nationalist sentiments also risks jeopardising Australia’s foreign policy agenda; namely the development of its middle power reputation and economic prosperity.


It is important for Australia to start seeing China from a different perspective. Instead of engaging with China based on its poor relations with the US, Australia should attempt to understand China better and become more aware that interaction with China should not be dictated solely on the basis of Australia’s allies. Above all, even where one country’s reputation is considered in a subjectively negative light with a particular country, this does not objectively mean that the country in question is objectively ‘a bad regime’. Every country has its own unique history and culture, that informs its nature and agenda today.