If countries like China are going to bully one “middle power” after another, maybe the middle powers should work together to push back.
That’s an idea picking up interest in countries like Australia and Canada as political disputes with the world’s giant nations spiral up into levels of hostility and trade retribution not seen in decades.
But a geopolitics expert thinks the idea needs to be more nuanced than a simplistic “unite the little guys against the big bully” approach.
Even if middle powers can multiply their strength and influence by working together, the world’s giants such as China, the United States and India still aren’t likely to do much differently.
“Living in a multipolar world order means no one has absolute power over anyone else and no one can make the other side do what they want,” said Jacob Shapiro, founder and chief strategist of Perch Perspectives.
However, middle powers can achieve much by working together, regardless of their inability to change the disturbing behaviour of the giants.
“Middle powers can do a great deal together to more effectively deal with global volatility and geopolitical tensions by making their own blocs more prosperous, technologically advanced, based on the rule of law and environmentally conscious,” said Shapiro.
While Canada’s dispute with China over the detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou is dragging on toward its second anniversary, it has not visibly worsened. Canadian canola exports have been squeezed but not entirely shut off; pork trade continues, with sporadic interruptions that may or may not be due to the political tensions and many crops are flowing freely to China despite the canola situation.
Australia’s situation is much more fraught. Recently, two Australian journalists had to seek protection in in their country’s consular offices in China after the state’s police began making menacing moves towards their freedom. The journalists fled the country.
Chinese rhetoric against Australia’s government intensified after it was revealed that Australia had raided the homes of three Chinese government journalists in June. China has already strangled or harassed Australian exports of barley, beef, wine and coal to the country, as well as urging its tourists and students to avoid the nation. China’s government became incensed with Australia when it called for an international inquiry into how COVID-19 escaped China and spread to much of the rest of the world.
Australia has also become more vocal about China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea, which is bordered by nations like Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines, but which China, far to the north of the area, claims is its territory.
China also has numerous disputes with other middle power nations including a number in Europe, which have sometimes led to trade reprisals.
Shapiro said a positive response to the problems countries like Australia and Canada are having with China, and which Canada has had with the U.S., would be strengthening trade and other interactions with other middle powers in order to reduce reliance upon one or two major players.
Canada associating more tightly with a group like the Association of South East Asian Nations, which includes Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Brunei, makes a lot of sense, Shapiro acknowledged. Analysts at Canada’s C.D. Howe Institute recently called for Canada to ink a trade deal with ASEAN because of shared interests in trade, the rule of law and wider global trade.
There is potential in a number of places on the globe.
“There are lucrative trade relationships to be had in parts of Africa, Latin America and Central Asia too,” said Shapiro.
“It’s a big wide world and now is not the time to be scared of it. Now is the time to identify opportunities while everyone else is scared and ducking for cover.”
But as for any idea that the giants will modify their behaviour due to push back from united middle powers, Shapiro said don’t count on it.
“I think people need to disabuse themselves of the notion that any one country or bloc of countries is going to change the behaviour of another country that feels threatened and where policies are being driven by fear,” said Shapiro.
“China feels its national security is being threatened. Whether that threat itself is real or not is another question. But the feeling of threat is real. Ditto the United States. Canada isn’t going to change Chinese behaviour any more than it can change American behaviour.”