Dr Christian Downie is a Fellow at RegNet.
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In September, in the margins of the UN General Assembly, Australia will assume the role of chair for a little known grouping of countries known as MIKTA – Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Turkey and Australia. While Australia has been quick to promote the grouping, our participation is not without risk. Indeed MIKTA has the potential to constrain Australia’s capacity to use one of our most effective foreign policy strategies: building issue-based coalitions.
More on that in a moment, but first to MIKTA. Outside Australian foreign policy circles, MIKTA is unknown. Yet it has quickly developed from a thought bubble between foreign ministers – yes, Kevin Rudd played a role – to a grouping of ‘middle power’ states. Formed in 2013, foreign ministers now meet three times a year and MIKTA has established its own website and a common vision to ‘deepen bilateral ties, and find common grounds for cooperation’.
There is an ongoing debate about how MIKTA should be used. Many view it as an avenue to formalise relationships with countries with which Australia does not have strong ties, such as Turkey. Less discussed is the risk of aligning with MIKTA.
As a self-described middle power, one of Australia’s great strengths in international affairs has been its capacity to build coalitions around specific issues to achieve our foreign policy goals.
In international forums like the WTO or the G20, it can be more effective to build a specific coalition around trade, for example, than it is to build a general coalition of countries to support Australia’s agenda. In fact, empirical data from international negotiations has demonstrated that coalitions defined in terms of specific issues often do very well.
Australia has learnt this lesson well. In 1988, for example, Australia helped found the Cairns Group, a coalition of around 20 agricultural export countries that proved effective at forcing agriculture onto the international trade negotiations. At the G20 Summit in Brisbane last year, Australia worked hard to ensure that coalitions were built around issues like trade and energy, and not around power groupings like the G7 or the BRICS.
The reason is simple: any intrusion of a power-based grouping limited Australia’s capacity to establish issue-based coalitions, one of our principal strategies to influence G20 outcomes. This is the risk with MIKTA. Australia’s participation has the potential not only to further legitimate power-based and regional groupings, which are not in Australia’s interest, but also to undermine the credibility of Australian calls for other countries to coalesce around issues instead of blocs.
Every time Australian officials at the G20, or some other international forum, chastise the G7 or the BRICS for blocking progress or developing positions across a range of issues rather than addressing each issue on its merits, these countries can point to MIKTA.
Given the strong backing of Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Australia is not about to abandon MIKTA, and it could still prove a useful avenue to strengthen bilateral ties. Yet it is worth considering whether Australia would do better devoting its limited diplomatic resources to building coalitions around issues that are directly in Australia’s interest (such as trade, or as is increasingly being recognised within the Government, energy) rather than building MIKTA into more than a highly informal grouping.
This post was originally published on the Lowy Interpreter blog.