Stay alert in shifting landscape

The terrorist attacks in Bali last Saturday night demonstrate that the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiah is still a threat and that we underestimate the ability of such networks to adapt and evolve at our peril.

But the continuing threat to Australians posed by transnational terrorism also highlights the dramatically changed security landscape Australia now inhabits.

Unlike the Cold War and the relative predictability of superpower balance, this landscape is far more complex and uncertain.

Globalisation has brought tremendous benefits but it also confronts the modern, open states in the West and parts of Asia which emerged successfully from the Cold War with a range of new threats.

Ironically, these threats arise from the very success of these states in building an interconnected world in which time and space are greatly compressed.

The Internet, for instance, may be shrinking the world but one entity that uses it effectively is Al-Qaeda.

Transnational terrorism thus represents a new security dilemma for the 21st century. At the same time, the 21st-century world order is beginning to resemble a geopolitical chessboard as regional centres of power form in Europe and Asia which seek ultimately to balance American global hegemony.

But while European states have surrendered their sovereignty to the European Union, China and India still act like modern states concerned with national interest and national sovereignty, representing a more traditional security dilemma.

The international system thus appears split between a 20th-century paradigm centred on the nation-state and a 21st-century world in which non-state actors take on growing importance. Globalisation has connected these two worlds through ease of travel, communications and financial flows, but it has not integrated them.

To Australia ‘s near north, old and new security dilemmas appear to coalesce. The relative weakness of the regional states that form the Association of South East Asian Nations demonstrate both an historic pliability and ambiguity towards the mutually suspicious major powers that compete for their attention.

Meanwhile, internal instability and separatist insurgencies in parts of Indonesia , the southern Philippines and southern Thailand afford the space for transnational crime and terrorist networks to flourish.

But mounting strategic anxiety to Australia ‘s far north is a product of state strength rather than state weakness. Despite growing economic interdependence, political and strategic tension is rising between the region’s two major powers, Japan and China .

These historic rivals have never before been strong at the same time. Similarly, trade and investment are increasing between Taiwan and China , but so too are the number of Chinese missiles pointed at the island. For Australian policymakers, “old” strategic concerns about a breakdown in the East Asian power balance have therefore not gone away. They have simply been joined and complicated by new security threats such as transnational terrorism.

Disagreement continues over which should be accorded greater priority and significance. The emergence of the Islamist internationale with regional and potential Australian franchises is an immediate danger. Yet no government can afford to ignore the longer-term geopolitical implications of China ‘s growing regional power and influence. History demonstrates that the rise of great powers has rarely been peaceful.

Unfortunately, Australian strategic thinking remains muddled by the continued promotion in some quarters of a utopian internationalist and/or regionalist policy. The inaugural East Asian Summit in December has been widely touted as the harbinger of a comprehensive multilateral East Asian community that could eventually blossom into an Asian answer to the European Union, thus solving the problem of power politics.

But this analogy is misleading. Despite the EU-like pretensions of the ASEAN secretariat, the principal actor in the Asia Pacific region remains the sovereign nation-state – a fact that the rise of China only serves to emphasise.

By not rendering sovereign institutions accountable to supranational jurisdictions, the Australian Government has retained a degree of policy flexibility and can mix and match responses to the diverse features of the new and old security dilemmas it confronts. For a middle power like Australia , an old-fashioned regard for political sovereignty remains one of its most valuable strategic assets.

• Dr David Martin Jones is Senior Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Queensland . Susan Windybank is foreign policy research director at The Centre for Independent Studies. This is based on their report Between Two Worlds: Australian Foreign Policy Responses to New and Old Security Dilemmas released this week and available at