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Asian Middle Powers: Implications for United States Military Planning

Wild Blue Yonder --

Claim

Asian middle powers’ unique blend of national autonomy, transnational economic interdependence, and a multi-pronged approach to great power relations limits the United States’ ability to secure consistent cooperation on regional security issues. Consequently, the US should not assume automatic military support from these powers in a dispute with China. The US military must recognize that these changing dynamics will affect its ability to project combat power in the Pacific. However, Australia’s position as a leading Asian middle power and its deep relationship with America provides an opportunity to influence middle power capabilities.

Asian Middle Powers

Asian middle powers, specifically buffered maritime powers, play a unique role in Asian geopolitics. They occupy a middle ground between the United States and China and do not easily conform to traditional realist and liberal notions of state behavior. These attributes include:

  1. Their island or peninsula geography allows them to avoid being consumed culturally, economically, or militarily by larger powers.1
  2. They can experience internal domestic turmoil caused by “contested national identities” and transnational economic integration, avoiding integration based on values.2
  3. Their actions reflect an unwillingness to align permanently with major powers in that they typically do not counterbalance, completely integrate with a larger power, or give up national prerogatives in pursuit of multilateral security arrangements (i.e., NATO).3
  4. They rely on agile diplomacy, work with similar nations on overlapping areas of interests, back up their socio-political autonomy with hard military power, yet recognize the increasing incongruity of military power and economic integration.4

Australia’s Middle Power Status

Australia is unique among Asian middle powers in that it shares many of the attributes of other maritime powers, yet it is firmly aligned with the US-led western order. Australian concerns about Chinese military intentions have reinforced its strategic alignment with the United States, but its recognition of the “Asian-Century” has also led to a larger economic relationship with China.5 Australia’s middle power position allows it to proactively engage with the United States, China, and other middle powers.

Implications for US Military Planning

Asian middle powers pose a challenge for US planning efforts in the Pacific, particularly as it pertains to countering Chinese activities. As an expeditionary force, the US military requires firm security commitments from other nations, especially as it pertains to basing rights, logistical support, intelligence sharing, and combat power integration. Asian middle powers' increasing autonomy from the United States and China, combined with their penchant for using diplomacy and transactional agreements to maintain regional economic integration, weakens commitments to support US military activities. This lack of commitment forces the US military to recognize planning constraints, requirements, and assumptions regarding potential military actions. However, its alliance with Australia provides an opportunity for further integration.

Constraints:
Middle powers will constrain US options because of their increasing semi-nationalist desires for autonomy and to avoid permanently aligning with any one side of the China-US equation. This reality will complicate US planning efforts to position forces and logistics during a China scenario. The middle powers’ desire for regional stability will likely preclude them from offering the US military firm commitments regarding overflights, munitions and supplies storage, basing rights, and other desired combat support. Rather than expecting friendly nations to automatically support US activities during any regional dispute, America needs to understand that support will likely be contingent on the nature of the dispute. Middle powers’ growing relationship with China and increasing desire for autonomy will influence what type of support they are willing to provide the United States during a military dispute.

Requirements and Assumptions:
The US military will require partner nations to operate as part of a coalition in any conflict with China. However, the United States must assume that middle powers may be reluctant to support any side during a dispute and that nations such as Australia, Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, and India may work to form a middle power bloc to advance their own regional interests.6 It must also assume that Australia will hedge its strategic relationship with America by partnering with China in the economic sphere.7 This geopolitical reality complicates the US military’s planning efforts for potential coalition operations.

Opportunities:
Despite Australia possessing Asian middle power characteristics, its western political and societal values, combined with historical military ties, means that it will likely continue to support US foreign policy goals and collective security missions. Australia’s security concerns with China and its acceptance of US military personnel on its territory reflect its deep integration with the United States. Such military integration does not necessarily undercut Australia’s desire for autonomy, rather it provides it both a national capability that it can use independently and as part of a coalition. Its participation as a Quad member in the 2020 Malabar exercise, its first time in 13 years, is evidence that America can use military ties to encourage middle powers to hedge against China.8 Military integration at the system (e.g., F-35) and operational levels help develop other nations’ capabilities that the United States may be able to leverage should middle powers feel increasingly threatened by Chinese activities. As one of its closest security and cultural partners in the region, Australia can remain a strong military partner while also providing insight into, and perhaps even influence, any future middle power bloc.

Conclusion

Asian middle powers’ desire for security autonomy and economic integration force the United States to reevaluate what support they may provide during a dispute with China. America must recognize that the nature of the dispute will drive any potential support and that it cannot assume support will be forthcoming. Fortunately, Australia is a strong and reliable US partner that can provide the United States insight into middle power activities, a key advantage that China lacks.

Major Jason Giroux

Major Jason Giroux is a USAF intelligence officer and graduate of Air Command and Staff College’s Political-Military Affairs Strategist Program. He has worked at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels in various roles throughout the Intelligence Community.
This paper was research conducted for the ACSC elective, The Asia Rebalance in US Strategy.

Notes

1 Michael Kraig, Managing a Sustainable Balance of Interests and Power in Asia: Understanding the Role of ‘Buffered Maritime Powers (Book under Review for Publication), 20.

2 Kraig, Managing a Sustainable Balance of Interests and Power in Asia, 2.

3 Kraig, Managing a Sustainable Balance of Interests and Power in Asia, 5.

4 Kraig, Managing a Sustainable Balance of Interests and Power in Asia, 19, 32.

5 Thomas S. Wilkins, “Australia: A Traditional Middle Power Faces the Asian Century,” in Middle Powers and the Rise of China, ed. Bruce Gilley and Andrew O’Neil. (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2014), 150.

6 Wilkins, “Australia: A Traditional Middle Power Faces the Asian Century,” 157-158.

7 Wilkins, “Australia,” 156.

8 “Australia to participate in Exercise Malabar 2020,” Joint media release, Australian Government Department of Defence, 19 October 2020, https://www.minister.defence.gov.au/.

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