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National Security Advisor's address at Kerala State Planning Board on -'India’s Security Environment'

March 20, 2014

Shri KM Chandrashekhar, Vice Chairman KSPB,
Ambassador TP Sreenivasan, DG, Kerala International Centre,
Distinguished guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen.

Thank you for asking me to speak to you. It is a privilege to be asked by the KSPB which is making such considerable contributions to Kerala’s transformation.

It was suggested that I speak about India’s security environment. I thought that I might briefly scan the internal and external environment in which we try to enhance India’s security and describe the challenges and opportunities that we face.

Speaking in Kerala I do not need to say that it is virtually impossible to draw a line between our internal and external security. Kerala has always been the part of India that is most connected to the rest of the country and the world, intellectually, through trade, the diaspora, and through cultural and religious exchanges. Our mosaic of communities and religions in Kerala is proof of that.

What stands out when we look at our security environment today?

In virtually every respect, our security environment is undergoing a fundamental phase transformation. We seem to be at a hinge moment. Let me try to explain why I think so.

  1. Internally, India is undergoing a period of unprecedented social and economic change, with urbanisation and social mobility leading to a new set of security challenges. As a state India has learnt or is learning how to deal with organised violence in our society, whether it is separatist violence, terrorism or militancy. Over the last decade the figures for incidents, civilians killed and security force casualties in J&K, the North-East, as a result of terrorism or as a result of Left Wing Extremism/Naxalism in India, have declined steadily.

    But the same is not true of what may be called social violence, such as crimes against the person or gender related crime. Measured in terms of incidents and victims communal violence has risen each year in 2012 and 2013. We are a society in such rapid change that the social equilibrium that we take for granted is under severe stress. The aspirations, anonymity and rootlessness that urbanisation and rapid social change create are loosening the traditional social restraints that limited these sorts of violence in our society.

    Policing, or at least traditional policing, or the type of policing we have adapted for LWE/terrorism/separatism, is not the first, best or preferred answer.

    Given the fact that ours is a unique society, we need to find creative ways to deal with this issue. It worries me that this is not receiving the kind of serious attention that it deserves from our institutions, academics, social scientists and concerned citizens. We are still to display the ability to deal with the security challenges thrown up by our rapidly urbanising, young and mobile society with its high aspirations and expectations. To my mind this is our greatest security challenge today.

    This is a challenge that cannot be solved by technical fixes such as police modernisation, better weapons and pay, or new technologies and techniques. Nor do we need more laws. It needs political, economic, social and administrative solutions. Kerala has made a good beginning with community policing initiatives but there is much to be done to strengthen them and to carry them to the rest of the country.
  2. Externally, as well, the international system is undergoing a major shift into what can only be called the post economic crisis world. The US is circling the economic wagons, negotiating the TTP and TTIP as plurilateral free trade arrangements which seek to raise standards to suit the West’s comparative advantage. The two post- Cold War decades of an open international trading system and the free flow of capital, of which India and China were among the greatest beneficiaries, are over. We are moving to a much harsher external economic environment in terms of enabling the transformation of India.

    Politically the regions which affect our security most directly are no longer tranquil. Uncertainty in the international system is at levels unprecedented for several generations. West Asia is in turmoil, East Asia is no longer harmonious, and jehadi terrorism has globalised. The Asia-Pacific region is witnessing what may be history’s greatest peacetime arms buildup, in quality and quantity. The sole superpower is perceived (in my view wrongly) to be in retreat or disinterested. China is more active externally and is rapidly accumulating power. The global commons, of the high seas, airspace, cyber space and outer space, is increasingly contested. New threats have emerged in outer space and cyber space. New technologies pose new risks to India as does the revolution in military affairs. Those threats are serious and more complex than before. Of course, there is no such thing as absolute security. And we are better placed to deal with them, or, are able to mitigate them to an extent that would have been inconceivable just one generation ago.

    Such changes in the international system are not necessarily only negative for our pursuit of India’s national interest. Kishore Mehbubani thinks that India is entering "a geopolitical sweet spot”, and that increased uncertainty and friction in the international system will create unique opportunities for us. If so India can benefit.

    Whether Mehbubani is correct or not,we should be engaged in a creative debate on these issues in the public domain in India, with our thinking grounded in our own conditions.
  3. China:

    The other major recent development in the international system is the rise of China and several other powers in the Asia-Pacific.

    Bilaterally with China we have shown that we can manage our differences while developing relations in areas where our interests are congruent. We have brought negotiations on the boundary between the Special Representatives to the second of the agreed three stage process. In the first stage, in 2005 we agreed the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for a boundary settlement. We are now discussing a framework for a boundary settlement. And in the third stage we hope to agree a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable boundary settlement.

    China is now our largest trading partner in goods and seeks to invest and use her excess capacity by manufacturing in India and to invest in and build India’s infrastructure. She is also keen to involve us in connectivity projects, such as the BCIM Corridor, the New Economic Silk Road, and is ready to open up undisputed portions of our border to trade and travel. There are economic opportunities here for us, such as the 96 million Chinese who travelled abroad last year as a potential source of tourists to India.

    Our approach has been to engage with China. We have a robust dialogue structure in place with China on issues like counter terrorism, Afghanistan and so on. For several reasons China presently works with us internationally, on issues like climate change, in the WTO negotiations and so on. We also have a common interest in preventing extremism and terrorism in the periphery which is common to both of us. At the same time it is a fact that while cooperating we also compete for markets and in other respects in the periphery we share, and in the world.

    Maritime security is probably a good example of this bivalent relationship, where China has agreed to a maritime security dialogue. We have a common interest in keeping open the sea lanes carrying our energy imports and our trade.
  4. The Sub-continent:

    With the exception of Pakistan, our neighbourhood presents an improving picture where hope and progress predominate. Each of our close neighbours has gone through significant internal transitions in the last few years. Most have chosen to move away from extremism and to build democratic polities. This has also been a decade when South Asian economies have grown faster than ever before. They are today more integrated economically than at any time since the subcontinent was Partitioned. These transitions are still unfinished but they have enhanced our ability to work together on common security and prosperity with Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Afghanistan and the Maldives..

    The challenge now is for us to step up our game and move our relationships to the next level, deepening and widening them. South Asia and the Indian Ocean region are a new focus of great power rivalry and interest. So long as the Indian Ocean and South Asia were a strategic backwater in geopolitical terms we had a relatively free run in our immediate neighbourhood. We can no longer take that for granted.
  5. Our Extended Neighbourhood:

    Our Look East policy, followed by successive governments since it was announced by PM Narasimha Rao in 1992, has been an unqualified success. Look at our present relations with ASEAN, Japan, and South Korea. Over 50% of our foreign trade now goes east, we do over $ 70 billion of trade with ASEAN and we are steadily adding political and military content to these relationships.

    The real volatility is to our west. In 2013 over 75,000 people died of armed conflict or terrorism in the "Greater Middle East”, (Morocco to Pakistan), according to the IISS. This was 78% of all conflict related deaths in the world. The geopolitical balance in West Asia was destroyed by the Gulf Wars, creating space for extremism and terrorism and for dichotomies in which unpopular regimes met their nemesis at the hands of their most organised domestic opponents, the Muslim Brotherhood or more radical groups or the Army. And this so-called ‘Spring’ was fuelled by social media tools and propaganda, and other black arts, all of which have been rapidly learnt and spread.

    The net result is extreme volatility in a region that is critical to India’s interests. We get 63% of our oil from the Gulf, almost 7 million Indians live and work there, and remittances are of the order of $ 75 billion a year. And the entire fault lines — Shia/Sunni, autocracy/populism, extremism/moderation— intersect in the Gulf.

    We have stayed out of these dichotomies, tried to insulate ourselves and our people from growing extremism and radicalism in the region, and worked with all the major actors to defend our security and economic interests. (We may be one of the few powers able to do so with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey, all at the same time.) This balancing is not easy or pretty but it is necessary.
  6. Technology and New Domains:

    The biggest change in the last ten years has been the result of the application of technology, particularly ICT to our lives. The ubiquitous mobile, now smartphone, is an instrument of social mobilisation and protest, as the ‘Arab Spring’ and AAP have shown. We saw the effects of social media in summer 2012 when rumour and lies drove tens of thousands of North-Easterners home from Karnataka and Maharashtra, and fed the violence in the Bodo areas. Terrorist groups now use the internet for recruiting, communication and even (with less success so far) as a weapon.

    Fortunately these are domains in which India has talented manpower, and which suit our disaggregated way of functioning. We have achieved some success in cyber security in the last fifteen years.

    Friends,

    All in all, I would dare to say although we face an increasingly challenging security environment, independent India also has better capabilities to deal with them. But we live with a paradox in India. We are simultaneously increasingly secure and increasingly paranoid about our national security. And since we live in a rapidly changing world, we need to find new ways of ensuring our security.

    Consider how secure India is today compared to the three decades after independence. There is no existential threat to India’s integrity. The risk of war is not what it was. For two and a half decades we have faced cross-border terrorism and subversion, external support to insurgent groups and attempts to divide us communally, even the printing fake Rupees by our enemies. And yet these have been the decades when India has done best in terms of accumulating power and raising our people out of poverty. The means available to the Indian state to ensure our security have also grown considerably in the last few decades.

    On broader security issues like food security and energy security too India has done well. Think of where we were when we lived from ship to mouth on PL-480 wheat and observed wheat-less days. We have come a long way.
  7. Why are We Paranoid?

    If we are actually more secure than before why are we increasingly paranoid about our security?

    One reason may be a sense that what worked for us in the past is no longer relevant. It is time to find new ways of ensuring our security.

    That is because today’s threats are more serious and more complex than before. They are threats as much to our stability as to our way of life, to our quest to modernise, and to our strategic autonomy. And we have much more to lose.

    As I said before, we do have reasons to worry. There are real threats to India’s security, those threats are more complex, and uncertainty in the international system is higher than it has been for a long time. And this is when India is much more linked and dependent on the outside world and has much more at risk. This is no longer a subsistence game, it is a game for higher stakes. Energy and food security could determine the future of our country. (The Indian middle class knows that their jobs, prosperity and even lifestyle are connected to the outside world — many middle class families have someone studying, working or settled abroad. Those who are frightened of interdependence try to turn their backs on the world. The majority doesn’t.)

    So we have cause to worry and to address the issues that I mentioned before. But why is there a hysterical tone to some of our national discourse on national security issues?

    It is not just because threat inflation is an industry. It always was — a military industrial complex needs an enemy, journalists need a story, and diplomats work crises. There is an industry and economy built on threat inflation, as TV anchors counting up nuclear weapons and missiles reminded us last spring when Chinese soldiers pitched tents in Depsang. But that does not explain the hysterical tone.

    There are two relatively recent reasons, linked to each other, which cause people to worry and make our national security discourse sound paranoid at times.

    One is an expanded definition of security. We rightly demand more personal security, in a society in rapid change. As a society we expect much more from the state while we simultaneously fetter its hands by holding the state to higher standards of behaviour and impose checks and balances on its powers. And we now define national security in the broadest way, including energy and food security, and, some would add, mitigating the effects of climate change.

    The expanded definition of security leads naturally to higher aspirations and expectations of the state and society. As the security calculus has expanded so have demands on the security apparatus. Public confidence in the capacity of state organs to provide internal security is low. We may have made progress since 2008 in improving our counter-terrorism mechanisms, but not yet in all the other aspects of internal and personal security. Expanded demands, limited public confidence, and the extent to which they are met are now amplified by the new media environment that we are immersed in: social media, the blogosphere, 24X7 TV news and so on. When partisan politics are added to the discussion of national security issues, you can see why there is a perception of insecurity.

    There is thus an increasing dichotomy between the reality of how secure we are and our perception of it. One or the other will have to change. Our perceptions could change, which would be relatively painless though some egos may be bruised. Or else we will see attempts to change reality. This would be harder.
Conclusion

We are in a new normal where expectations and publicity increasingly try to drive governments in their security choices, not an objective calculus of the balance of power and how it could serve national political goals. For instance, we now conduct counter-insurgency and counter terrorism in the full glare of the TV cameras. Similarly, in cyber space we must assume from the open and transparent nature of the medium that what the state does will someday become public knowledge, most likely sooner rather than later, and not just because of future Snowdens.

The new normal has its advantages. Civil society is now involved in security issues. In Nagaland there is a spontaneous civil society movement opposing extortion and "tax” demands by insurgent groups. Unarmed civilians have shown great courage in standing up against intimidation by armed militias, spontaneously and largely on their own.

We must learn how to operate in this environment. This is not just about media management. It is about changing and learning new ways of working so that we can actually use its characteristics to improve our own security.

I am confident that we can and will do so. After all we have shown an ability to learn as we go. Measured by outcomes India has done reasonably well in one of the toughest security environments in the world, nearly tripling GDP in the last decade. The last two and a half decades, when we faced cross border terrorism and other threats have also been the most transformative decades in India’s history. It is never easy living through rapid change. Contemporaries are often blinded and alarmed by the rush of events. We are fortunate to be living in one such phase. To my mind, the Great Indian Experiment is alive, well and increasingly secure.

 

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