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  • The Role of Middle Powers in Asian Multilateralism
  • Ralf Emmers (bio)

Without referring directly to middle-power scholarship, Sheldon Simon has often written on the statecraft of middle powers and the role they play in Asian security. This is especially the case with reference to Indonesia and Australia and their impact on regional institutions, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and their respective relations with the United States and other great powers.1 Unlike most realists who focus on the great powers, Simon has highlighted in his research the importance of the middle-power security nexus and the way middle powers can engage and influence strategic relations in Asia.

Middle powers have received too little attention within the literature on Asian security and the security architecture of the region. While much of the focus has been on the great powers, regional security is also important to address from the perspective of the middle-power states. These countries are perceived as less threatening to the international order yet still have the “weight to influence what happens around them” and to be of use to great powers.2 Middle powers have employed different strategies to protect their interests at the regional and global levels. These strategies can be classified into two distinct types: functional strategies, which advocate that middle powers utilize their resources to address specific issues; and normative strategies, which suggest that middle powers actively promote behavioral norms and rules through [End Page 42] multilateral institutions.3 It is this second type of strategy that is discussed in this essay in the context of Asian multilateralism.

A Normative Security Strategy

Middle powers preserve their national interests by encouraging the adoption of norms and standards of good international behavior. Their objective is to shape a rules-based order and establish good governance in international affairs through multilateralism. The experience of middle powers and their reliance on a normative security strategy is best illustrated by their active involvement with the United Nations and other global institutions. Middle powers use multilateral platforms to level the playing field among the great and non-great powers.

In addition to a global perspective, a similar normative strategy has been adopted by Asia-Pacific middle powers to manage the negative impact of great-power competition in the region. Middle powers have sought to institutionalize great-power relations through the ASEAN-led forums to create incentives for the great powers to commit to a rules-based regional order. This diplomatic process has focused on persuasive efforts and confidence-building measures without restricting national sovereignty or relying on any form of sanctions. The proffered norms have included nonuse of force, noninterference in the internal affairs of other states, quiet diplomacy, and mutual respect. These norms constitute the core of the ASEAN approach to cooperation in the region.4 In short, the aim of a normative security strategy has been to ensure that regional stability is maintained through behavioral patterns that help develop confidence and mutual trust.

This discussion raises the issue of whether the middle powers have succeeded in influencing the Asian security environment. In other words, have their normative security strategies strengthened Asian multilateralism and promoted a rules-based regional order? To answer this question, this essay focuses specifically on the cases of Australia and Indonesia. [End Page 43]

Indonesia as a Middle Power

Indonesia’s middle-power identity emerged in the first decade of the 2000s and could initially be associated with the two presidential terms of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. In more recent years, the middle-power status of Indonesia has been acknowledged through its rising influence in global and regional multilateral institutions. The country has sought to act as a normative middle power. Its engagement with the United Nations in recent years has included co-chairing the UN High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, serving as a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council on three occasions, and successfully winning a fourth term from 2019 to 2020. In addition, Indonesia has been the only Southeast Asian member of the G-20 since the group’s inception in 2009.

Irrespective of its global ambitions, Indonesia has kept ASEAN and its...


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