Middle Powers Symposium

The Role of Middle Powers in an Age of Uncertainty

Saturday 16 May 2015
Parramatta Campus PS EA 1.29


The rise of China and subsequent simmering tensions between the United States and China has resulted in a power struggle that has reverberated throughout the Asia Pacific region. Much has been written about the great power interplay between the US and China, as well as the role of Russia and India as a significant and rising power and the response of Japan as an established power. Territorial disputes in the region (Senkaku/Daiyou islands between Japan and China and the Spratly Islands between China and several South East Asian countries are prime examples) and lingering cold war tensions on the Korean peninsular have understandably enhanced the perception of the region as a geo-political 'hot spot'.  Little however, has been written on the role middle powers can play to assist in norm setting and searching for non-confrontational outcomes to reduce existing tensions. As a result of their non-threatening status, middle powers have the opportunity to offer creative solutions to seemingly intractable problems.  In the Asia Pacific region middle powers have been active in creating regional forums and layered architecture to conduct inclusive discussions on contentious issues. 

In this context, middle powers are ideally placed to provide the mechanisms and framework for creative solutions.  The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has sought to mediate on regional issues through the ASEAN plus 3 forums and the annual East Asian Summit. Several countries, moreover, have formally or informally offered their good offices as middle powers over the past few decades - Singapore, South Korea and Australia – and have been active in this capacity.  Nonetheless the current great power rivalry and threat of a conflict between the US and China has led to a polarisation in the Asian region. New regional architecture with imaginative/creative diplomacy is required. 

This workshop seeks to explore what are the opportunities and limitations on middle-powers in the current realist-dominated environment. 

Key themes of workshop

  • The utility of middle powers operating effectively in a great power dominated environment.  Middle Powers are states that have agency in a specific region because they have more capacities than small states, and less political entanglement and responsibilities (hence more freedom) than leading powers.  
  • Middle power diplomacy in action  (1) within discrete crises, (2) on going/historical crises,  (3) Regional governance processes, (4) global governance processes 
  • Rivalry among contending middle powers and what this signifies. Middle Power and their relations with other actors. Do we see middle power collusion, or middle powers seeking to develop relationship with large powers, or becoming leaders amongst smaller countries? Australia, South Korea and Singapore see themselves as middle powers. How do they articulate their perceived role in foreign and regional diplomacy?  Scholars in Japan now argue that Japan is a middle power. How do we make sense of these discrepancies? 
  • Middle power by default? States that have understood that their specific characteristics, circumstances (historical, domestic, regional) and current position lead them to a state where they lack the capacity to become stronger. They, in turn, 'settle' for a lesser role on the world stage, either by default or by actually embracing it. 
  • Middle Power Diplomacy: are middle powers more equipped to settle regional tensions because they present a less threatening image to neighbours, while still having a stake and closer understanding of the regional system they evolve in? Can this clout, if it exists, be exported as a global level, and exploited within world processes or large organizations such as the UN, or the WTO for example? 

The workshop has several aims:

  1. To assess the role and efficacy of middle powers
  2. To examine and contrast the strategic approach taken by Australia, Japan, Singapore and South Korea on the role of middle powers in the Asia Pacific region.
  3. To produce an edited volume or special issue on 'middle powers in an era of uncertainty in the Asia Pacific'. 


  • Virginie Grzelczyk (Aston University, United Kingdom)
  • Hieyeon Keum   (University of Seoul, South Korea)
  • Hung-jen Wang (Taiwan)
  • Go Ito (Meiji University, Japan)
  • Lam Peng Er (National University of Singapore)
  • Shogo Suzuki (Manchester University, UK)
  • Thomas Wilkins (Hong Kong University/University of Sydney, Australia)
  • Emilian Kavalski (Australian Catholic University, Australia)
  • Andrew O'Neil (Griffith University, Australia)
  • David Walton (Western Sydney University, Australia)
  • Edmund Fung (Western Sydney University, Australia)
  • Diane Coleman (Western Sydney University, Australia)
  • Peter Mauch  (Western Sydney University, Australia)
  • Mark O'Toole (Western Sydney University, Australia)
  • Andrew Kelly (Western Sydney University, Australia)

For further information contact the convenor, David Walton.