Regional Security Complex Theory in South Asian context

Sidra Ahmed

Security complexes are a typical product of an anarchic international structure”.

  -Said Barry Buzan, the prominent expert of South Asia security.

Decolonization has brought about a slew of complex changes and daunting challenges to the international System. The world was left with many unanswered questions along with the emerging issues which made the thinkers and theorists to establish theories and the frameworks just to address those simmering issues systematically and scientifically. Furthermore, the changing scenario during the Cold War times also demanded the experts of international relations to re-evaluate the global political system, especially with reference to the regional security concerns. With reference to regional security, three major developments can be seen as significant: First, as soon as the regional security gained immense importance, it was included in super powers’ agenda for the discourse which ultimately led to the termination of the Cold War. Second, the wars and conflicts occurred in the third world region were considered as a threat to the international order in post-Cold War era. Third, an increased realization and demand for regional security arrangements in the third world and other affected areas was made by the major powers.

Despite modern advancements in the fields of technology and transportation, the reality remains that security threats have a higher potential to travel over short distances rather than long, and the capacity of most states to extend and assert power beyond their own regional sphere is relatively limited. Consequently, the relationship between geography and anarchy in the existing international system has facilitated the rise of regional security complexes, whereby geographically adjacent states are bound within a distinct regional dynamic, be it conflict or cooperation. It is an interesting fact that the realists’ conceptions of security are still dominating international politics; yet, the call for cooperation from the liberals is also seriously taken by the states to strengthen their security and hinder the frequency of transitional threats.

The aim of this article is to utilize the theoretical framework of Regional Security Complex Theory (RSCT) in order to analyze the complex web of South Asian region. This piece will investigate what role the South Asian states can play in relation to one another other and how the threats and conflicts may accelerate beyond the region?

Regional Security Complex Theory (RSCT)

The RSCT theory has been advanced by Barry Gordon Buzan, who is a Professor of international relations at the London School of Economics ,and Ole Waever, who is also a professor of international relations at the University of Copenhagen. In their 2003 work “Regions & Powers: The structure of International Security”, they comprehensively presented the concept and theory of RSCT.


Barry Gordon Buzan

A region is a defined area with two or more than two states in it which they interact and affect each other either by amity or animosity. Both ways the region’s security is a matter of concern to the existing states. The central idea of RSCT is how security is clustered in geographically shaped areas. Security of each actor in a region interacts with the security of other actors. It has been a confirmed fact that regional pattern of security has become more important in global politics since the decolonization. Regions and their security are now more self-directed and more influential. The countries which lie in a conflicting region are not directly involved in conflict or war would also be considered as under the threat of it just because of the correlation of anarchy and geography. Now, local powers have more room to maneuver.

 A security complex is defined as a group of states whose primary security concerns link together that their national securities cannot be realistically considered separate from one another. The name has an advantage of indicating both the character of the attributes that defines the set (security), and the notion of intense interdependence that distinguishes any particular set from its neighbors. Security complex emphasizes the interdependence of rivalry as well as that of shared interest.

The state is the reference object of the security while the non-state actors do have their pivotal role in defining, reshaping, influencing, and shaking the security system of the region. Now the international security agenda has been expanded to include economic, environmental, commercial, ethno-religious security, and so and so.

Key Points of RSCT

  • It is an analytical device that assists the experts and students in analyzing the region which is under consideration.

  • It greatly helps in fully understanding the location and formation of a region by giving an empirical phenomenon to it.

  • RSCT gives a framework to analyze and compare the regional security of different regions.

  • It is a way of making the relative independence of regional security dynamics stand out from the local and systemic.

Understanding South Asia

South Asia, which consists of seven states of different sizes and capabilities, is typified by high levels of insecurity at the interstate, intra-state and human level (insecurity that is evident in both traditional and non-traditional security problems),especially the threatening transnational terrorism fuelled by militant religious ideologies.

The core countries of South Asia are Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Srilanka and the Maldives, while Afghanistan and Burma are generally included. The region is home to more than one-fifth of the world’s population, making it both the most populous and the most densely populated geographical region in the world. It has the world’s largest Hindu population about 63 percent and the Muslims around 30 percent. South Asia is also home to a large number of followers of other religions such as Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism. Besides the demographic and ethno-religious diversity, this region is important for the economic opportunities due to the larger population (large consumer market), cheap labor and raw material. The bilateral trade between India and China is set to rise to over 100 billion dollars by the year 2015, which was 60 billion dollars in 2010. India has the 2nd highest population in the entire world. In South Asia, Pakistan and Bangladesh possess potential human capital, vast resources and both are striving relentlessly to become major regional economic and military powers in the foreseeable future.

The former US president Bill Clinton declared South Asia as “the World’s most dangerous place” due to some deep-seated vulnerabilities existing since the nuclear tests in 1998 by India and Pakistan. The volatile South Asian region has been important geo-strategically and geo-economically to the big powers in all three major paradigms of the Cold War, post-Cold War and post-9/11 incident. India and Pakistan are two major players of this less-integrated region. India projects itself as the hegemonic and leading power of South Asia on account of its ever-increasing increasing standing armies; satisfactorily growing economy; sound and continuous democratic system and highly-skilled and educated middle class. Pakistan, on the other hand, challenges and balances India’s superiority with its nuclear capabilities and well-trained and well-equipped army, growing population with youth in the majority, geographical location and strategic and economic relations with China and the US. Pakistan and India continue to be contending parties as the Kashmir conflict remains the major point of the rift; three of their four wars were over this territory. India claims the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir and administers approximately 45.1 percent of the region, including most of Jammu, the Kashmir Valley, Ladakh and the Siachen Glacier. India’s claim is contested by Pakistan, which has control of approximately 38.2 percent of Kashmir consisting of Azad Kashmir and the northern areas of Gilgit and Baltistan.

Bangladesh is recognized as a next 11th country which has an economy larger than some other countries such as Vietnam, Switzerland, Singapore, Sweden, Qatar etc. However, Bangladesh is plagued by several political, economic, social and environmental challenges i.e. political instability, corruption, poverty, severe weather and over population. The most complex foreign relationship of Bangladesh is with neighboring India due to historical and cultural affinities.

As far Nepal, it is situated in the Himalayas and bordered to the north by China and to the south, east, and west by India. Nepal has close strategic relations with both of its neighbors, India and China. In accordance with a long-standing treaty, Indian and Nepalese citizens may pass through each other’s countries without a formality to have a passport or visa. Nepalese citizens may work in India without legal restrictions.

As far Bhutan is concerned, it is bordered to the north by China and to the south, east and west by India. To the west, it is separated from Nepal by the Indian state of Sikkim, while further south it is separated from Bangladesh by the Indian states of Assam and West Bengal. Bhutan is a landlocked country and due to its dependency on India, Bhutan has to maintain strong economic, cultural, strategic and military relations with neighboring India.


Picture showing the borders of Nepal and Bhutan.

The 7th South Asian state is the beautiful Maldives, which is an island nation. This country is the smallest Asian state in both population and land area. It has no such conflicts with other countries of the region but has experienced a serious political crisis due to some dormant internal challenges.

South Asian Regional Security Complex

Interestingly, South Asia was the fundamental case study which Buzan and Ole used to develop their theory of regional security complex. According to them, south Asian regional security complex came into being as a conflict formation (just like other postcolonial security regions). Most of the problems that South Asia is facing are mainly stemming from their complex internal dynamics with an external factor that could well further intensify the situation.

In Cold war period, security of this region was much measured by Indo-Pak relations, Sino-India relations and nuclear proliferation. The post 9/11 period brought so many visible changes to the trend of world politics as well as to the regional politics. In South Asia, the geo-political situation has instigated a string of major challenges because of the involvement of extra-regional powers like the US (Pakistan’s direct alliance with the US in the name of war against terrorism).

Besides the geopolitical complexes, diversity in the system of governance, religions, languages and civilization are also some formidable changes. South Asia is very sensitive due to the two rival states which share the same borders and both of them are nuclear powers. Pakistan and India’s inter and intra-state conflicts have devastating effects in the region. In last few decades, the intra-state conflicts have been augmented in south Asia due to communal riots in India; ethnic and sectarian violence in Pakistan; the rivalry between the two main political parties in Bangladesh; power struggle and war inside Afghanistan and the rift between monarchy and communist party in Nepal. These conflicts have full potential to escalate into a regional crisis and hence destabilize the peace and tranquility any time in future.

Besides regional fears and lack of mistrust, the domestic issues are not constrained by one’s national boundaries. As a result,  these internal issues often lead to external conflict (examples of Mumbai attack, the insurgency in Baluchistan and Bangladeshi political parties confrontation) in which the two (or more than two) parties focus more on finding the conspiring connections of the rival party with the conflict.

It is a fact that most of the internal conflicts in south Asia are due to the unsettled inter-state conflicts. Because of the constant internal and intra-state conflicts, the region has become a hub of some of the most disastrous problems like terrorism, political instability, religious and sectarian violence, human and drug trafficking, water scarcity and mismanagement, territorial and border clashes, insurgency and inequality, refugees problem etc. Such a complex situation has created stumbling blocks for the security, prosperity and development of south Asia. All South Asian countries have been gone through chaotic situations within their territories except Bhutan.

Major security (inter & intra-state) challenges to South Asia:

  1. Nuclear proliferation and militarization between India and Pakistan

  2. Kashmir conflict, LOC skirmishes, Siachen glacier issue and Indus River water sharing problems, cross-border terrorism, ideological and religious conflicts between Pakistan and India.

  3. Tamil Nado conflicts in Southern India and Srilanka.

  4. Border tension, the war on terrorism, militancy, radicalization, drugs and weapons smuggling and refugee’s problems between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

  5. Illegal migration across the borders, river water sharing and problems of access to Indian market between India and Bangladesh

The economic condition of the region has a direct impact on its security. The higher inflation rate, poverty, increased unemployment, shrinking economic possibilities due to poor law and order situation and poor governance are all multiplying the internal crises which in turn are adversely affecting the socio-economic and political environment of the adjacent countries.

While analyzing the security complex of south Asia, the role of superpowers in Cold War and post-Cold war era cannot be overlooked. The interest and influence of the Big Powers served to maintain the existing patterns of enmity and hostility. Pakistan became a partner of the US network during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1980’s which is one of the major causes of Pak-Afghan unfriendly relations. India befriended the erstwhile USSR even though India was a non-aligned state on the basis of its foreign policy. Both India and Pakistan’s affiliation with two big powers amplified the stress level that they even went closer to the verge of wars, militarization and to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Whereas in post 9/11 period, the US and NATO forces remained very active in this region during the war against al-Qaida and terrorism in Afghanistan and northwestern parts of Pakistan. Pakistan’s involvement in the war on terror further destabilized its internal security which ultimately put a negative effect on the region. India demands Pakistan to dismantle its terrorist infrastructure (the so-called jihadist & religious militants) that operate from its soil while Pakistan strains India to stop intervening in Balochistan and Kashmir. The festering Kashmir issue is the fundamental trigger behind Pak–Indo political rift and the cause of all four wars including that of Kargil. India’s desire of dominating the region’s economy and the water resources is also another major reason behind indo-Pak, indo-Bangladesh conflict.

Pakistan’s relations with China also affect the south Asian RSCT as it increases the mistrust between India  and China and India  and Pakistan. India conducted its first nuclear test in 1989, the then defense minister Mr. George Fernandez justified them on the ground that China posed a serious threat to Indian security these charges were being denied by the Chinese government.

South Asia, as mentioned by President Clinton the world’s most dangerous place, is a region with huge complexities and multi-faced inter/ intrastate problems. State failure in any country could be potentially devastating for the regional security. The stifling role of non- state actors (multinational companies, banks, agencies & organizations), inefficient, unstable and corrupt political governments, and military’s involvement in politics are further twisting the complex. Security is no more dependent upon military or militancy only; it is now very tightly entrenched with the economy, politics, foreign states interest/intervention, ideological differences and identity crisis. Free trade option can be implemented seriously in order to lessen up the stress between the rival states of South Asia.

Despite being the principal regional organization, SAARC never has had an impact on security issues, and dismally failed to provide mediation assistance on the major issues. The human factor is rising quite faster as an influencing one (both in a positive and negative way), whether it by people to people contact, trade, electronic and social media. The demand for and the shift from military security to law & order and economic security is much visible. India being the larger state and major power is more responsible for resolving its disputes with Pakistan, Srilanka and Bangladesh, while Pakistan as the second major player also requires to seriously handle the burning issues of terrorism and militancy both inside and outside the borders. Joint efforts can reduce the conflict’s intensity and the level of mistrust. Afghanistan is and will be the key issue in the discourse due to its internal political and economic wreckages. A troubled Afghanistan will never be desirable for Pakistan’s internal peace and stability and for Iran’s and India’s economic interests as well. The one point agenda for the complex web or regional security in South Asia should be economic development and good governance.

The writer is  a student of  MPhil – International Relations(IR) at  University of Karachi and a visiting lecturer at Hamdard University.


7 thoughts on “Regional Security Complex Theory in South Asian context

  1. Well thought and written article Sidra. You rightly pointed out the one point agenda with respect to economic development and secuirty is the prerequite for it. No nation managed to thrive unless the curtail security threats.

    Keep doing the good research, analysis and writing!


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