The Evolution of Security: Small States in South Asia


“In the last analysis, human security means a child who did not die, a disease that did not spread, an ethnic tension that did not explode, a dissident who was not silenced, a human spirit that was not crushed.” – Mahbub ul Haq, 2001.

 “People, States and Fear” stands as one of Barry Buzan’s (1968) most highlighted pieces of contribution to the thought and development of security studies. The scholar had argued amidst heightened tensions during the Cold War “that security has a meaning independent of the state at the level of an individual” (p. 33).

The thought of the focus moving from state to people raises poignant questions that deal with the issue of currently emerging linkages drawn between the aspects of development and security. The Realist view in International Relations pertains to the belief of a state’s focus on the protection of its territory and national interest. It could possibly be a result of the almost pessimistic view the Realists hold of human nature.

The new world order that emerged from the dying embers of the World Wars completely changed the outlook of states and people. States that have since then been concerned about their respective sovereignty and development now look towards framing policies and thoughts that align with the tenets of human development and security.

Security: For Whom?

The understanding of the term “security” has evolved over the decades. The Stockholm Initiative (1991) was one of the first calls for addressing “challenges to security other than political rivalry and armaments, and wider concepts of security which dealt with threats from failure in development, environmental degradation”. The concept was codified later within the 1994 United Nations Human Development Report, stressing on the lines that security has moved beyond the defense of the natural borders of a state. In giving a roughly sketched understanding of the perception of what qualifies as a protection of the individuals, it broadly defines the concept under seven main headings: personal, health, economic, food, community, political, and environmental security.

The rationale that these basic guarantors lead towards a “freedom” from want and fear has been an integral approach for policy practitioners and theorists alike. Some scholars have tried to build upon these very foundations guided by this principle. David A. Baldwin, a political scientist who closely regarded this build-up of ideas explained that the study of security has been based for too long on the policies adopted by states and then questioned,

“Are proponents of economic or environmental security using a concept of security that is fundamentally different from that used by Realists? Or are they simply emphasizing different aspects of a shared concept?”

The state has been a fundamental unit of analysis for scholars involved in defining and redefining the ideology. However, the concern for states in a constantly changing world is varied. Island states, for instance, face a threat of rapidly diminishing borders owing nothing to military intervention but to the rising sea levels. Through the layers of talks of sovereignty and territorial integrity, each state through generations has talked about one thing alone: survival. As humans, it is a common knowledge that the conditions for survival are ever changing.

The Worldwide Threat Assessment published by the National Intelligence of the United States in January 2019 paid heed to certain concerns. It pointed towards the risks rising from public health tensions, human displacement, the strikes on religious freedoms and environment and climate change.

Security, thenceforth, becomes a complex term to grasp, and requires a careful consideration of the threats that plague the concerned states. Some threats may even override concerns that stem from a military perspective, something that staunch Realists may categorically disagree with. Survival for small states that lack competences not only to deal with large-scale military interests but also face relatively less capability to combat non-traditional threats forms a focal point of their insecurities. It stretches the boundaries of national security concerns and forces the people to observe the impinging elements that cannot be solved by strengthening the military defense.

The Human Development Report in South Asia 1999 had aptly concluded that security encompassed the protection of the individuals and their development in every sphere of their life as much as that of the state borders.

Threats to small states in South Asia

South Asia constitutes of some of the most volatile powers in terms of their inter-state relations and differing capabilities. The time worn adage of Indian hegemony survives, though many may counter it. States that are considered small for the purpose of this article moves beyond the conventional weightage put on the size of the population or the reach of its physical territory. As Bjøl (1971) mentioned, size may be a factor but only in relativity as the “state is only small in relation to greater one” (p. 29). In this case, states become small owing to their relative capabilities in comparison to the regional power. For some South Asian small states that are nestled between the great Himalaya on one side and a vast ocean on the other, states face an overwhelming concern that have little to do with armed intimidation.

With developing economies that are barely toddling their way through the wider global challenges and opportunities, such threats may prove to be a greater menace than any competent military of the world. Adding to this, the ever present nuclear tensions, the growing anxieties of terror movements, poverty, democracies that are struggling with maintaining their identities, and the massive anxiety about the break of a pandemic, make the region a boiling pot of insecurities that is at a risk of overflowing into an already fragmented regional framework. Apart from the Sino-Indian and Indo-Pakistani rivalry, potential effects of climate change as well as ethnic and nationalist tensions could prove to be a pertinent threat.

The region consists of almost a quarter of the world population, ever vulnerable to the issues of poverty, climate change, and environmental degradation. Bangladesh faces the dangers of sea level that is expected to rise by 0.4m-1.5m by the turn of the century. The Maldives faces a similar crisis with its shorelines disappearing beneath the vast oceans. On the other side of the spectrum lie states like Nepal that are intimidated by the mountainous terrain standing tall with its snowy peaks and the enormity of the devastations that could result from the melting ice caps.

The balance between security and regional integration in South Asia hangs by a precarious thread. Besides massive water and food insecurity, a rush of both inward and regional migration may create pressure on tense regional ruptures, creating global consequences. The lines between human and national security blurs in such circumstances as far-reaching global threats transcend state borders.

With an increasing number of people living below the poverty line, the Multidimensional Poverty Index mapping out progress in 2019 showcased that South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa were the poorest regions in terms of inequality and income. While South Asia has improved overall in the efforts of reducing poverty, the threats of an unequal society face a pressing demand on their economic and social structures. That is not even to mention the ethnic rivalries and religious conflicts that trickle from state policies of regional powers. Similarly, it will be a challenge for the small states to tackle the serious outbreak of COVID-19 that has made the entire world sitting on the edge.

So then, what is security for a state that deals with threats not only from beyond its territory but also from within? But more than that, what is security for states that lack capabilities to deal with both?

South Asian small states can no longer afford to distinguish between the idea of state-centric security and ideology of human security. The military may be the backbone of any state, but with no territory and no people, the armed forces would find scant reasons to solely defend its land. Small states that are relatively less capable in terms of size, population or economy are vulnerable to different kinds of threats. Policies need to address the diversity of challenges, not just in multilateral conferences, but in strong national security policies. Worldwide cooperation for countering global threats cannot be distinguished from the very aspect of survival of a state. Sovereignty, as it is, depends on the recognition of this fact.


Bjøl, E. (1971). The Small State in International Politics. In A. Schou, & A. O. Brundtland, Small States in  International Relations. Stockholm.

Buzan, B. (1983). People, States, and Fear: The National Security Problem in International Relations . 1983: Wheatsheaf Books Ltd.

Human Development Centre. (2000). Human Development Report in South Asia , 1999: The Crisis of Governanc. Karachi: Oxford University Press.

Stockholm Initiative on Global Security and Governance. (1991). Common responsibility in the 1990’s: The Stockholm Initiative on Global Security and Governance, April 22 1991. Stockholm: Prime Minister’s Office.


About the author

The writer teaches at the Department of International Relations & Diplomacy, Tribhuvan University, Nepal. The opinions expressed in the article are that of the writer and not of the institution she is affiliated to.

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