National security and the economy are inexorably interlinked and have almost a symbiotic relationship with each other. While national security makes our country safer, economic security will make our country better in terms of improving day to day lives of ordinary people. So, a better economy also makes a country safe.
This is especially true in the context of a globalised 21st century marked by accelerated economic integration and the digital revolution.
The global context
When we talk about national security and the economy, it is important to first outline the key developments in the global framework.
The 21st century is a radically different world than what we experienced in the last century. Globalisation combined with information technology has made us economically highly interconnected like never before in the past. What is also distinct about our time is the pace of change which is super-fast.
This has brought both opportunities and challenges for the countries like Nepal which is at the margins of the global economy and power. On the one hand, we can smartly take advantage of globalisation to connect more with the world and explore newer opportunities for trade and investment. On the other hand, economically constrained countries like Nepal are vulnerable to possible economic shocks, energy crises, and disruption of global supply chains at the international level.
There are new security threats such as cyberattacks as evidenced by the recent incident at our Tribhuvan International Airport when its server was attacked. There are also risks of data espionage and disinformation.
More importantly, Nepal is vulnerable to the adverse effects of accelerating climate change. Snow melting, droughts and floods have already generated insecurities for a large section of our population.
Again, these risks have a direct connection with our economy. If we have a better economy, we will be able to deal with these threats more effectively.
National security in the new age
A question that has become most pertinent in the 21st century is: what is national security? In the last centuries, national security was defined mainly in military terms. As per this state-centric paradigm, the protection of a state’s territorial integrity is of core importance.
This still remains imperative as shown by the Russian attacks against Ukraine. There is a risk that big countries can launch military aggression against weaker neighbours for their larger interests.
However, the narrow definition of national security in terms of territorial defence is not adequate for this globalised, new digital age. Particularly after the post-Cold War, there have been new debates on security. Security scholars and experts have broadened the scope of security to better account for globalisation and wider trends following the end of the bipolar struggle for power.
More importantly, the threats of climate change that have become urgent in this Anthropocene era have pushed us to broaden the scope of national security. Our natural environment does not recognise territorial borders. As the global temperature rises, it is having an impact on Nepal as in other countries.
Many of these aspects focus less on the state and on military threats and more on human-centric threats and risks – expanding to include areas such as economic security, health, technological and environmental concerns. Hence, national security has become associated with preventing disruptive effects on society, economic performance or critical processes.
In turn, the paradigm of national security has broadened to encompass human security as its core dimension. An important pillar of human security is economic security. Economic security safeguards ordinary people from basic insecurities such as hunger, disease and unemployment, directly related to their physical security.
Economic security is also crucial to ensure technological security. Only when we have economic resources, we can deal with the newly emerged digital threats and risks of this new century.
Recognising these new security perspectives, Nepal’s new constitution has guaranteed an all-around human security system. The National Security Policy 2016 also reflects a few aspects of this new model of national security.
However, national security strategies need continuous critical thinking and discussions to address the constantly evolving threats and risks of our new age.
When we are talking about updating our national security policies and strategies, we also need to have a perspective on the evolving global power dynamics. International relations have rapidly changed in the last two decades. The end of the Cold War and the end of the bipolar world have briefly transformed the world into a predominantly unipolar one, which is now gradually changing into a multipolar one. The roles of not only the great powers but also medium-sized states like Nepal are undergoing changes.
It has been predicted that in the next few decades, China and India will become two of the world’s superpowers. During that time, Asia will surpass the combined strength of North America and Europe in economic might, population size, and military spending.
India and China will have vetoes over many international decisions, from climate change to global trade, human rights, and business standards. This is a sure challenge to the US’s sole hegemony after the Cold War which the US understandably wants to maintain.
Not surprisingly, there have been shifts in the US policy towards China from the Obama administration’s earlier relatively friendly approach. Since Trump’s administration, China has been perceived as the most significant threat to its unilateral global dominance. Biden administration has continued this policy. This has led to an increased rise in global military spending particularly in the US, China, and India and the use of economics as a tool of national security.
However, the US is not in a position to confront China completely due to its economic implications. The US is China’s largest trading partner.
The US policy towards India has also evolved. In recent years, the US has been cosying up with India and treats it as an important ally to counter China’s increasing global influence.
Nevertheless, their relationship is not straightforward due to India’s historically close links with Russia and US’s military engagement with Pakistan. It is also said that an influential section in the US is concerned about India’s internal political developments, particularly human rights abuses of minority groups.
China and India’s relationship is equally complex. While both countries understand that mutual cooperation is in their long-term interests and deep economic linkages, there are underlying insecurities and border disputes that often shape their relationship.
These complexities of relationships have been manifested in newly emerged global alliances. On the one hand, India and China got together to form BRIC in 2009 which later was renamed BRICS. On the other, India has been a part of the recently formed QUAD to counter China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
Nepal amid the centrality of the Indo-Pacific region
This Indo-Pacific region has become geopolitically important because there is intense competition between two great powers –the US and China. It is said that the Indo-Pacific which is home to 65 per cent of the world’s population will shape the trajectory of global politics for most of the 21st century. We have seen a few glimpses of Indo-Pacific geo-political rivalry in Nepal as well.
While the US is building alliances to counter China, China has its own initiatives to extend its global influence such as Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which is joined by around 18 countries from the European Union.
What is also distinct about these current international coalitions is that instead of long-term alliances such as NATO, they are ad hoc project-based alliances. A few scholars also claim that we are moving towards a post-Alliance era in which ad hoc international coalitions would be dominant.
Nepal’s strategic position between two nuclear powers competing for global powers has created new complexities for us when it comes to safeguarding our sovereignty and national security, which is vital for economic progress. The competition and insecurities between three global power centres of the 21st century, namely western powers, China and India have affected our national security framework.
The challenge for Nepal is while we need to engage with all three powers for our economic benefit, we need to stay away from their competition for power and influence with each other. Oftentimes, economic benefits are tied up with their security interests. This is when it gets complicated for Nepal.
Given our vulnerabilities, economic security has to be an integral part of our national security. I fully subscribe to the idea that there should be an emphasis on trade diversification and a self-reliant economy as the pillar of our national security. While it may not be possible to be fully self-reliant in all sectors in today’s day and age, we have the potential to be self-reliant at least on food and energy security.
We can take the example of the West. After the Ukraine war, it started taking initiatives to reduce its dependence on Russia for its energy needs. It is also taking steps to reduce dependence on China for strategic goods such as computer chips.
It needs to be stressed that political parties need a better vision of Nepal’s security and defence policies. Merely displaying their commitment to protecting sovereignty and territorial integrity is not adequate. We need to think more deeply about national security issues at least keeping a long-term perspective in mind.
The next road
In terms of long-term strategic planning on national security, according to international security experts, two key global security threats need to be taken into account.
The first relates to massively increasing income gaps that could trigger violent conflicts in the margins of our society. The second relates to environmental degradation that is likely to cause violent conflicts in countries like Nepal in the future.
It is now high time that the country embarks upon the modernisation of the Nepal Army to suit the demands of the fast-changing geo-political/geo-strategic situation in the neighbourhood in the 21st century. It would be prudent to equip the Army with ultra-modern weapons and techniques and focus on quality rather than quantity. We could think of raising a mass militia trained in guerilla warfare and mountain warfare to support the armed forces in case of external aggression. Also, we must find a way to regulate the open and porous borders with the big neighbours.
We need to remember that the Maoist’s movement for inclusive democracy and social justice in Nepal as well as our peace process were home-grown. Both Nepal Army and the Maoists should realise that we both want a prosperous Nepal in which our children and grandchildren have a bright future. Therefore, we should leave the past behind and focus on building an economically prosperous Nepal that we all can be proud of and want our future generations to happily live in.
Former PM Bhattarai delivered a speech titled A Better Economy for a Safer Country during a seminar organised by the Nepal Army’s Army Command and Staff College last week. This is an edited version of his speech.