Mysay: What is national security?

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on March 26, 2018 - April 01, 2018.
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The governments of most countries in Asia see national security as the No 1 issue, feeling a need to protect the status quo that is the primary source of their political power. Although the analysis offered here is focused on Asia, it is not region bound. Several Asian countries have existed for hundreds if not thousands of years, but most of them became independent states and emerged in their present form after World War II.

Upon gaining independence, incumbent leaders engaged in nation and state making (or nation building) on the basis of their preferred visions. Majority ethnic group domination in nation making and the autocratic political domination of the state became the norm.

Leaders were and still are reluctant to consider alternative visions of the nation and state or more flexible interpretations of sovereignty. Although they fought foreign domination in the name of the people, the leaders very soon thereafter decided that they knew what was/is best for the people, leading to the notion that state sovereignty supersedes that of the people.

With fixed and in many ways partisan concepts of nation, state and sovereignty, they devoted considerable resources (3% to 6% of GDP) to developing strong armed forces to ward off internal and international threats.

Opposition leaders who advance alternative views, question the core values to be protected under the label of national security, the resources set aside for securing the nation and state or the strategy used are often suppressed. They are frequently labelled as disloyal and even subversive.

Considerable secrecy also attaches to issues relating to national security. The allocation for defence, for example, may appear in the budget with cursory discussion, but parliament and similar bodies are not permitted to discuss the details on the grounds of secrecy and sensitivity. Notwithstanding the high value attached to it, it is a highly ambiguous concept and very few can genuinely answer the question: What is national security?

In the abstract, it implies the protection of the political community (nation) and system of government including the political structure (state). Securing nation and state constitutes national security. Many countries (especially the major powers) may also include the construction and maintenance of a favourable international environment as part of national security.

At its base, however, national security for all countries implies protecting the nation and state. This translates into the textbook answer that national security implies the protection of territorial integrity and political independence of the state largely from external threats. This may not be controversial and can be accepted at face value should the nation and state rest on the consent of the governed and there are peaceful mechanisms to bring about change in both.

The basic premise here is that people are sovereign in the contemporary era. They are members of a specific political community (nation) and state by choice. The state’s participatory political structure (usually federalism with liberal provisions for autonomy) enables people to exercise their rights, rather than constrains them.

If the people feel they cannot fully exercise their rights within an existing political structure they can vote in a negotiated referendum to become a separate country. This does not imply that there would be continuous splitting along ethnic or religious lines. Despite strong separatist tendencies, the Quebecois and the Scots have decided to stay with Canada and the UK respectively. The key to maintaining the political and territorial integrity of an existing country is to provide all citizens with constitutional equality. In such cases ethnic and civic nations can coexist, with multi-ethnic and multi-religious nations becoming the norm.

There is no need for one group to dominate others through coercion to form a nation in its preferred image. Nation building does not have to entail nation destroying. All citizens accept the state as is or can avail themselves of peaceful mechanisms to bring about desired change.

In these countries, citizens freely assign their protection rights to representatives elected in free and fair elections. Thus, in democratic countries where people are members of a nation and state by choice and enjoy constitutional equality, free and fair elections provide the leadership with legitimate authority to define national security on behalf of the people. Protection of nation and state in these countries is not controversial as it rests on the consent of the governed.

This, however, is not the case in most Asian countries. National security is usually defined to protect existing or aspirational nations and states that favour certain groups (alienating others in the process) and to serve incumbent government leaders. Groups are bound not by choice but through fear and coercion with little or no avenue for peaceful change.

Alternative visions are viewed as threats to incumbents’ hold on political power (privileges of power), hence, are defined as threats to national security. Its definitions in these countries would appear to be skewed in favour of preserving those in power/office and using state power to fight competing opinions.

In contested countries, regime survival and security concerns parade as national security, leading to skewed interpretations of ideas like comprehensive security and national resilience. Ruling elites define the nation and state in their preferred images to enable them or their parties to monopolise political power. Alternative visions by competing elites are labelled subversive and dealt with as threats to national security.

For example, the Tiananmen Square uprising and the Falun Gong movement in China were deemed threats to national security and were suppressed to preserve the communist state under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The Uighur and Tibetan resistance movements, as well as the freedom sought by the 24 million Taiwanese and the seven million people living in Hong Kong to govern themselves free of PRC domination or interference, are also seen as threats to national security.

The ultimate aim of national security, as envisioned by the CCP leadership, is the unification and preservation of a Chinese nation grounded in the Han nation and preservation of a state under the leadership of the CCP.

This was/is the case in most Asian countries. In Suharto’s Indonesia, for example, protection of national security implied protecting the Indonesian nation as envisioned by Suharto and the political system and structure with Suharto at the helm. Timor-Leste could only gain independence in the Habibi era through a UN-sponsored referendum that allowed Timorese living in Timor-Leste the option of separation from Indonesia.

Likewise, in contemporary Myanmar/Burma it is defined by the military, which has veto powers on all matters pertaining to national security, as hinging on the unity of the country. The military will not countenance autonomy or separation for so-called minority communities that have been engaged in rebellion against Rangoon since independence in 1948.

Minority demands for autonomy and secession are viewed by the military as threats to national security and dealt with accordingly. The denial of citizenship status to the Rohingya is based on the military’s static imagination of who or what constitutes the Myanmar nation. There is no room to include new citizens and groups.

Similarly, the Muslim quests in southern Philippines and Thailand for autonomy are viewed by the central governments in these countries as threats to their Catholic and Buddhist nations respectively, as well as threats to their unitary systems of government. The Tamil quest for autonomy or separation in Sri Lanka was similarly viewed by Colombo as a threat to the integrity of the Sinhala-Buddhist nation and Sinhala political domination through a unitary system of government in that country.

In Singapore, national security implies the protection of its territory from external threats (non-controversial) and the one-party political system that has been in place since 1965 (that is increasingly contested). Likewise, national security in India implies protecting the democratic system of government and the territorial integrity of that country, including Kashmir and the northeastern states, some of which resist their inclusion in the Indian nation and state.

Such contestations are and were mostly in the domestic arena, explaining why most of the security concerns in Asia were and are internal. Domestic challenges are deemed to pave the way for international interference in internal affairs and conflicts blurring the divide between domestic and international conflicts as with some of the more severe international security challenges in Asia (China-Taiwan, North-South Korea and India-Pakistan).

These conflicts are grounded in contested notions of nation and state. The solutions to many security issues in Asia are political and do not have to rely on the threat or use of force. Reliance on force is costly and it often cannot resolve such conflicts. At best, force can compel a political-military stalemate that is usually not durable, except at great cost in terms of blood and treasure.

The key is to have mechanisms in place to forge peaceful adjustments in the constitution of nations and states. This requires political development, which is sorely lacking in nearly all Asian countries where the emphasis has and continues to be on economic growth.

Very few countries in the world (like the UK and Canada), mostly in the West, are politically developed and mature enough to allow their citizens to freely decide their belonging (identity) and preferred political arrangements.

Asian countries must seek to become politically mature by fully accepting the principle that sovereignty resides in the people. Giving full expression to that principle will require peaceful mechanisms for negotiating the basis of nation and state. In that context the purpose of national security will continue to be the protection of nation and state from external threats. But the means to national security will undergo a dramatic change.

Although armed force will continue to be important, the ability to accommodate peaceful change will become more important. That will curtail reliance on armed force in resolving essentially political conflicts and drastically reduce the significance of force in the pursuit of national security. Divining the content and purpose of national security in such situations will be much less controversial.

For this to happen, however, Asian elites must be encouraged to substantially rethink their ideas of nation, state and sovereignty, with much greater emphasis on political development to strengthen and secure the basic political units. In the process they must be willing to accept substantial changes to the political map. It is essential to recollect here that the map of Eurasia underwent dramatic but peaceful political change with the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the emergence of Russia and 13 other former Soviet Republics as independent countries.

It is also worth noting that economic growth, which commands much attention now, while important, cannot by itself resolve the political problems confronting Asian countries. Balancing economic growth with political development is a big challenge for them.

Failing in political development, Asian countries will be hard put to realise their national dreams of becoming advanced countries, as well as the collective dream of an Asian century. The much-vaunted idea of cooperative security will also remain a pipe dream as the status quo will remain contested.


Muthiah Alagappa is distinguished scholar in residence, School of International Service, American University, Washington, DC, and visiting professor, Asia-Europe Institute, Universiti Malaya

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