A month or so ago, with little fanfare, Australia participated in the first meeting of MIKTA, an informal grouping of five nations — Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey and Australia — described in press releases by Turkey and South Korea as an informal and non-exclusive group of 'middle powers', cooperating to address some of the diverse challenges of an increasingly complex international environment.

The initiative has received little attention, with some notable exceptions. There has been some debate in Australia on the initiative, but it has focused less on the merits of the grouping than on the utility of the 'middle power' label to describe it. The delineation of a 'middle power' is not settled either in the academic literature nor by practitioners.

Some would define a middle power by virtue of its economic weight, its military might, its democratic values, its willingness to engage in multilateral institutions and endeavours, and to advocate responsible international citizenship. Australia's new foreign minister, Julie Bishop, appears to have no qualms about adopting the label.

But there are those who argue that rather than defining Australia as a middle power, the term 'pivotal' is more apt (it's heftier than 'middle', but still not 'great'). Dubbing Australia a ‘middle power’, according to this argument, is unhelpful and misleading. Calling Australia a ‘considerable’, ‘pivotal’ or ‘significant’ power would be more appropriate to its status and role in the international order.

In the context of the MIKTA initiative, this debate is somewhat beside the point. The limited reporting available describes MIKTA as an informal, even spontaneous, grouping of nations conceived on the sidelines of the 2012 Los Cabos G20 leaders' summit.

Australia's Ambassador to Korea, Bill Paterson, described the aspirations of the group at a recent conference on middle powers hosted by the Korea Foundation in Seoul. While not locking in any formal program or organisational structure, the group has identified some issues on which it might work collaboratively to find common ground and pursue common interests: transnational crime, cyber security, energy security, food security, some aspects of climate change (such as mitigation and adaptation) and building the effectiveness and influence of the G20.

Australia is a member of a number of middle-power groupings. The Cairns Group of agricultural exporters and the Australia Group (advocating the control of chemical and biological weapons) are two. There is another one – the ‘constructive powers’ — meeting in Seoul this week.

Why should Australia shy away from informal groupings such as MIKTA on the basis that it somehow demeans us?

Mexico, Indonesia, Korea and Turkey are the world's 14th, 16th, 15th and 17th largest economies in GDP terms. Australia is 12th. No incongruity there. With the exception of Mexico, each spends around 2% of its GDP on defence (according to The Military Balance 2013). Each is committed to democracy and the rule of law, and each is influential in their regions.

Calling such a group 'middle powers' is beside the point. It's what they do, not what they're called, that counts. Tellingly, a Korean academic at the same Korea Foundation conference at which the Australian ambassador spoke, modestly decried the label 'middle power' for Korea, preferring the metaphor 'shrimp'. When pushed, he went as far as 'dolphin'. Definitely not 'whale'. Korea appears to be getting on with the job, rather than becoming bogged down in labels.

Judging by Bill Paterson's comments, it appears Australia will be similarly pragmatic, unfazed by debates about how to describe its constructive approach to diplomacy.

Photo courtesy of the Republic of Turkey.