I'm going to focus on one aspect of Michael Fullilove's National Press Club address, neatly summarised in his conclusion:

Australia has a choice. Do we want to be a little nation, with a small population, a restricted diplomatic network, a modest defence force, and a cramped vision of our future? Or do we want to be larger – a big, confident country with an ability to influence the balance of power in Asia, a constructive public debate, and a foreign policy that is both ambitious and coherent? Are we content to languish in the lower divisions or do we want to move up in weight?

I have voiced similar sentiments when it comes to Australia's diminishing strategic weight in a region full of rapidly growing powers. Yet we shouldn't underestimate how difficult it would be to effect a step-change in our population. Although Australians have proven accommodating and adaptable to high immigration levels, politicians know all too well that advocating for a big boost to immigration numbers can get them in trouble with the electorate.

It is a measure of the country's wariness on this question that Bob Carr, while NSW state premier and thus the leader of Australia's 'world city', could declare that 'Sydney is full'. And this was in 2000, when the world came to Sydney for the Olympics. If even a figure such as Carr — a liberal internationalist who wants an open Australian economy and strongly supports multiculturalism — cannot face the thought of a larger Australia, then we really do face a cramped vision of the future.

But as hard as it would be to move Australia to substantially higher population levels, the more difficult intellectual and policy challenge, and one that should precede any move to boost our population, is 'what for?' If a bigger population buys us a bigger economy and thus a strengthened defence and diplomatic capability, what should Australia aim to achieve with this increased power and influence?

In the conclusion to his speech, Michael refers to an 'ability to influence the balance of power in Asia'. I take it that this means more than just having strong military capabilities in the Southeast Asian context, because the opening of Michael's speech describes Australia's security environment (our 'predicament of proximity') in largely Sino-centric terms.

But if Australia needs the military heft to influence the balance of power with China, then as ASPI's Mark Thomson has written, its not clear that growing our defence spending to 2% of GDP, as Michael suggests, would be enough:

...even if we boosted our defence spending to 2.5% or even 3% of GDP...we would remain irrelevant to the balance of power between China and the United States...Bad things may happen, very bad things. But there is nothing that we can do about them, certainly nothing that we can do by the use of armed force. Even if the government had stuck with its plans to build its so-called Force 2030, we would remain bit players amid the emerging giants of the Asia Pacific.

Then again, Hugh White has advocated 2.5% as an appropriate target, and wants that to pay for 18 submarines and up to 200 advanced fighters for the air force. If Australia had that kind of capability today it really would make a substantial contribution to the regional balance of power; in fact, it would put us in a similar weight class to Japan. But even if the political will can be mustered, it will take decades to achieve that kind of capability, at which point China will be a far more capable force too.

And don't forget that a favourable balance of power in our more immediate region is no long-term certainty. Indonesia's economy is already larger than our own, but burdened by poor governance, Indonesia has a weak state sector and thus an underfunded and corrupt military. But those are eminently fixable problems, and in fact Indonesia has made quite a show of fixing many of its political problems since Suharto fell. Yes, reform has stagnated, but who is to say we aren't on the cusp of a second wave of reforms that further strengthens Indonesia? We can't expect Indonesia's power projection capabilities to remain indefinitely weak, and when that situation changes, the need to influence the balance of power with China will start to look like a more distant concern.

There are other questions raised by the promise of a bigger defence capability: would we use it to buttress America's slowly eroding regional hegemony? If so, won't that generate the kind of friction with China we would like to avoid? Or are we developing a more independent national strategy on the premise that American security guarantees will be less reassuring than they used to be? And are we pursuing a truly defensive (or 'non-offensive') capability that merely aims to deny an adversary the ability to coerce us, or do we want the ability to 'rip an arm off' an adversary?

The attraction of a bigger, more muscular Australia is that it keeps the country in charge of its own destiny — a security maker rather than a security taker. But I worry that the population and economic growth disparities with  Asia are so large that no reasonable amount of growth in our population will overcome them. The radical step suggested by Stephen Grenville — a union with New Zealand — may have economic advantages (though I'd argue most of them could be realised without a formal union, which would be unnecessarily damaging to New Zealand's unique political and civic culture), but I doubt it would have any impact on the strategic objectives Michael outlines.

Moreover, much of what Michael wants could be achieved without higher levels of immigration. DFAT's call on the federal budget is tiny; a rounding error, really. So we don't need a bigger tax base to have a bigger diplomatic footprint (in fact, as Michael recommends, it could come out of the AusAID budget). We can even raise defence spending substantially without breaking with historical norms.

The last thing I would point out is that the forces of inertia are strong. Should successive Australian governments do nothing of what Michael recommends, and should this result in an Australia with diminished international clout, the ride down will be very smooth. As Britain and France proved in the last century, it is possible to drop a weight class (or two) in international affairs while at the same time raising your country's standard of living. Then again, Britain and France managed their relative decline in an era when the US enjoyed massive economic superiority over its great-power adversary. The US and its allies are not in such a fortunate position today.

Photo by Flickr user Bernadette M.