Nowadays national leaders routinely talk about national security issues in Nepal. Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, for instance, has said Nepal’s security and foreign policy would be based on ‘objective judgment’ of Nepal’s location between its two giant neighbors—India and China. But there is no clear and comprehensive definition of ‘national security’ in Nepal. Most analysis of Nepali intelligentsia on Nepal’s national security is based either on layman or journalistic perspective. Little thought has been given to academic discussions and debates on this issue. The problem lies within Nepali academic community and policymakers who have not devised a clear strategy towards an appropriate approach. In order to fill this void, Nepali academia and policymakers need to urgently develop a coherent security strategy.
It is said that ‘Security is an essentially contested concept’. Every school of thought in International Relations promotes its own concept of security; different theoretical perspectives highlight different versions of security. But for our practical understanding here I group them under two heads: exclusive interpretation, which emphasizes state security, and inclusive interpretation, which puts more stresses on human security. I argue that Nepal needs to adopt a middle way between exclusive and inclusive interpretations while developing a comprehensive national security policy. This, I believe, will help Nepal tremendously when it comes to addressing its external and internal security challenges.
First, considering our geo-strategic position, Nepal needs to address the security concern of two emerging giants, i.e., India and China (exclusive interpretation). China has always maintained a policy of non-interference in Nepal’s politics. It respects Nepal’s foreign policy and the country’s transition to a federal republic. At this point, China’s only concern in Nepal is regarding Tibetan issues and worries that Nepal’s territories could be used for ‘free Tibet movement’. Moreover, China is worried about how a federal Nepal with the provision of ethnic self-determination will impact free Tibet movement.
India also has security concerns about Nepal. It is concerned with political agitation on the revision of the 1950 Nepal-India treaty and the possibility of terrorists using Nepal as a transit point, taking advantage of the open and shared border. India has also expressed its concern about the continuation of links between Nepali and Indian Maoists, given that India considers its Maoist movement its greatest internal security threat.
On the issues of federalism, India has been positive towards ethnic self-determination, especially on the proposal of One Madhesh. India considers that such an arrangement would address its security concerns more favourably. Nepal lives largely within the Indian security sphere; however, the rising power of China is trying to pull Nepal closer into its sphere of influence. This has irked Indian security establishment and created significant insecurity in India as a specific provision in the 1950 treaty provides India a de facto say over Nepal’s security, be it through consultations about third country threats or in the acquisition of arms.
While both China and India are competing for global influence, they are also worried about securing their interests in their neighbourhood. It is the golden rule of international relation that ‘every country is derived to address its security concern’ and they can go to any extent to achieve it. In such a situation, Nepal needs to develop a comprehensive policy (both foreign and security) to tackle such external threats and address legitimate security concerns of its giant neighbors. Nepal has not yet developed a comprehensive security policy; it does not even have a defence white paper to guide its security policy in the changing regional context, further undermining Nepal’s ability to deal with the rising powers in China and India independently. Hence, a comprehensive security and foreign policy is required, which should be better informed through appropriate academic and policy-level discussions.
Nepal faces severe external security challenges, but it is also facing as many internal security challenges (inclusive interpretation). First, there are growing internal security challenges to Nepal’s transition into a federal setup. The threat of ethnic violence, the fear that right to self-determination could lead to a secessionist movement (which ultimately may lead to the disintegration of the country) and rise of armed ethnic and other criminal groups could severely jeopardized Nepal’s internal security. Second, there are growing human security challenges like poverty, unemployment, health and climate change.
A population living in extreme poverty, for instance, may find itself attracted to terrorism and armed groups. Poverty can also trigger massive migration, which in turn causes refugee problems. In addition, a volatile mix of poverty and inequitable political institutions, ethnic discrimination, and low state capacity will increase the intensity of armed conflicts, as is seen in almost every country in central Africa. In another example, the changes wrought by a warming planet will lead to new conflicts over refugees and resources; new suffering from drought and famine; catastrophic natural disasters; and degradation of land quality across the globe. These sort of interrelated problems are very much relevant to Nepal.
A comprehensive security strategy must take a path between state and human security needs.
The exclusive security interpretation cannot help us understand these problems because they are not considered “issues” in security. However since the concept has evolved from one merely addressing inter-state relations to a more human-based concern (second interpretation), we finally have some kind of a framework to address these human-based concerns through appropriate security policies. Terrorism, poverty, endemic disease, ethnic conflict and genocide, all of them can threaten human existence, a concern which is now gaining in importance in security studies. Hence Nepal’s internal security challenges should be comprehensively studied through this second interpretation.
The country’s national security policy should thus be guided by the application of a holistic security concept, which encompasses both exclusive and inclusive interpretation. This will help us better understand and interpret security problems in Nepal and develop practical solutions to address both internal and external security challenges. There is no reason why we should not be able to devise means to initiate such discussions and debates. I still believe we need to invest more time, resources and money on conducting research (more academic rather than journalistic) to better guide and inform our policymakers. I think we have the knowledge and the capacity to stimulate such discussions but there are still big challenges on harnessing them. It is easy to criticize the government and its policies; much harder to provide coherent policy direction. Our aim should be to work with and for policymakers, provide them policy level recommendations and ensure that government incorporates and implements it. This is going to be a major challenge for us in the days ahead.
The author is a researcher on security sector reform at Kathmandu School of Law. He has a Masters degree in Asian studies from Australian National University