Peer reviewed analysis from world leading experts

KIA - Asia’s middle powers on the rise?

Reading Time: 8 mins

In Brief

China and India (Chindia) is on everybody’s lips when talking about rising Asia.

Then what is KIA? A car, most people would reply. Yet it could also be the new brand-name for Asia’s middle powers; (K)orea, (I)ndonesia, and (A)ustralia. They are Asia’s 4th, 5th, and 6th largest economies. All three are often dwarfed by the big power play between China, India and Japan and the region’s –and the world’s - superpower, the US.

Yet look at Indonesia’s population as the world’s third largest democracy, Korea’s economy, and Australia’s size - a continent in itself. They are solid middle powers. Relocate them to Europe and they would be large countries on most accounts. In Asia, they are too small to be big, but too large to be small.


  • A
  • A
  • A


  • A
  • A
  • A

Korea, Indonesia, Australia are all members of G20 – a forum which has gained preeminence in the on-going economic crisis. In G20, they are sitting at the table with an equal say alongside China and India.

All three have individual ambitions to leave their own print on Asian multilateral institutions and regional integration in the making, ranging from APC to G20 Caucus and E8.

South Korea, which used to describe itself as a shrimp encircled by whales, has new-found ambitions to play an independent role in Asian multilateralism. Lee Myung-bak has launched a New Asia Initiative that focuses both on strengthening Korea in Asia and Asia’s global voice.

Korea sees itself as in a position to mediate between the large powers –notably with China and Japan through its seat in ASEAN+3, which held its first independent meeting last year. It is expected to continue doing that. ASEAN+3 also produced Asia’s only joint and multilateral response to the economic crisis with the multilateralisation of the Chiang Mai Initiative (currency swaps), largely at the instigation of Korea. At the same time, Korea also sees itself as a voice for small countries and a bridge to the West with its democratic system and alliance with the USA.

All in all, Korea perceives itself as the right middle power to mediate in a global shift towards Asia. And South Korea will hold the chair of the G20 and will work towards an East Asian grouping to ensure that Asia’s united voice – if possible – is heard. Korea sees itself as able to secure the interests of smaller countries in Asia in that context. Korea’s commemorative summit with ASEAN the 1st and 2nd of June showed a determination to gain individual relevance towards the grouping. In Korea’s terminology, it’s the meeting of the equal size ‘shrimps’ that don’t feel threatened by each other.

The election of a South Korean, Ban ki-moon, as UN secretary-general – among other things – also showed that Koreans are generally liked in Asia with little political and historical animosity associated with the country and the people.

Indonesia is full of new confidence following a continued affirmation of democratic principles in the recent parliamentary and presidential elections combined with continued growth notwithstanding the economic crisis.

That new confidence is displayed in fresh foreign policy thinking. Executive Director Rizal Sukma of the influential Jakarta-based think tank, CSIS, has been arguing for an E-8 (China, Japan, India, Russia, Korea, Australia, USA, and Indonesia) as an informal forum to meet in connecting with Asian multilateral meetings and the G-20.

Sukma has also argued for a more independent Indonesian foreign policy less held back by ASEAN membership and geographical proximity1. The genuine lack of progress on human rights/democracy inside ASEAN – even with Charter and HR-Commission in place – combined with Thailand’s internal instability has reduced ASEAN’s role in the driving seat of regional integration. That is one of motivations for reducing reliance on ASEAN in Indonesia’s foreign policy. For Indonesia as a middle power, it is high time to secure an independent place at the high table of the Asian power concert.

How much of these ideas and proposals from CSIS will enter into government thinking remains to be seen when president Yudhoyono begins his new term in October. What is certain is that democratic, rising Indonesia also will be looking for increased leverage to assert its independent status as middle power in Asia and globally.

Australia is on the multilateral stage with PM Kevin Rudd’s proposal for an Asia Pacific Community (APC) as a forum for the better governance of great power relations, a proposal widely discussed in Asia and on this site. Where APEC 20 years ago, also partly an Australian initiative, was about securing the economically rising Japan in an appropriate multilateral framework, APC (with one letter fewer) has a larger ambition of managing great power relations in Asia-Pacific including in both the economic and security fields.

APC is also about continuing to make Australia relevant in Asia. As a primarily Pacific power its credentials can be questioned, like has been done in the inclusion process of Australia in the East Asia Summit, where Malaysia’s former PM Mahathir was very vocal in saying that they were neither ‘East (n)or Asians’. The next step in Australia’s initiative will be when PM Rudd is expected to brief Asian leaders at the East Asia Summit in October on APC.

The middle powers – a concerted approach?

KIA is not yet a united force. But they might want to be. All three want to brand themselves individually with their proposals and initiatives. Yet on their own, as middle powers, they might not be relevant enough with their individual proposals to secure the acceptance and interest of Asia’s great powers.

And all three still have their individual particularities and handicaps. Australia as a Pacific power continuously has to show its relevance in an Asian context. Indonesia even with new-found independent ambitions will continue to be anchored in ASEAN. Korea still gets bogged down in its immediate surroundings in the complicated relationship with its difficult twin brother, North Korea.

So they should coordinate their efforts. Two areas where KIA could take a common stance and make a difference are G20 and free trade agreements.

The April G20 meeting was in many headlines interpreted as China’s coming out as world power. That headline could have been captured by Asia’s united entry into the world stage. It wasn’t. Asia did not come out united or coordinated to the on-going economic crisis. ASEAN was out of play because of the chairman, Thailand’s incapacity to hold the summit meetings for ASEAN+ and EAS. So no early discussion of the G20 agenda took place or any debriefing on the meetings afterwards. It is time to make up for that.

The suggestion for a G20 Caucus should be enacted in order to endure that Asia’s big powers are obliged to meet and coordinate before the G20 meetings and to report to a broader Asian setting afterwards (EAS, ASEAN+). Korea as coming host of G20 could ensure this. Indonesia could work along and work to ensure that ASEAN does not feel left behind and is fully participating through the chairman’s continued inclusion in G20. In that sense, the last A in KIA could also be representing ASEAN. Australia should be pragmatic and see a G20 Caucus as a good stepping-stone for its intentions behind APC – namely to manage great power relations in Asia.

Another area where KIA could show a united front is the evolution of FTAs. In Asia, free-trade agreements are mired by a patchwork of individual agreements. Both Korea and Australia are active participants in this. Indonesia is not on the FTA-train yet, apart from the slow process inside ASEAN towards a free trade area. The middle powers would have an interest in coordinating and pushing for a region-wide agreement probably in ASEAN+6 format – which would include all three middle powers. That would remove the FTA-process from the current power play structure where FTA offers are part of a political charm offensive from Asia’s big powers.

Can middle powers really drive Asia forward?

The remaining question is if the middle powers will really get a seat at the table of the real negotiations. Rudd’s APC proposal to manage great power relations reflects a common characteristic of the KIA grouping. Alongside the nice sounding initiatives there is a growing powerlessness faced with the real power play in Asia, where KIA is aware that even as emerging middle powers it will be difficult to get a seat at the negotiation table – and once seated – a real say.

It is appropriate to quote in full Hugh White’s excellent remarks in another article at this site which highlights this difficulty in a realistic and pessimistic tone: ‘The plain fact – unpalatable though it may be – is that Asia’s new order will be negotiated between its most powerful states, and the painful process of compromise and concession will be best done away from the glare of big meetings. In its most important aspects it will not be negotiated in any literal sense at all, but will emerge as each major power remodel their policy to meet emerging realities’.

KIA is still a small car by all measurements. There will be limited space for KIA to influence the direction of Asian multilateral integration and great power relations. It should be coordinated to be effective and in order to influence China, Japan, India and the USA. Only in that case can KIA hope to also push the accelerator for rising Asia’s power structure.

Jonas Parello-Plesner works as senior advisor with the Danish government on Asian affairs. He is on the board of editors of the Danish magazine Raeson ( He is currently on research leave studying East Asian political integration meeting with think tanks, experts and commentators in East Asia’s major cities.

2 responses to “KIA – Asia’s middle powers on the rise?”

  1. Could you tell me where I can obtain information on the Lee Myung-Bak New Asia Initiative ??

Support Quality Analysis

The East Asia Forum office is based in Australia and EAF acknowledges the First Peoples of this land — in Canberra the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people — and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.

Article printed from East Asia Forum (

Copyright ©2024 East Asia Forum. All rights reserved.