Saturday, April 27, 2019

Regional Security Complex Theory

Well, let's discuss about some analytical strengths and loopholes in the Regional Security Complex (RSC) theory today. Here I will reflect upon what makes the RSC theory unique in analysing the ripple effects of insecurity and what makes it too ambitious.

In their landmark book Regions and Powers, Buzan and Wæver postulate that security challenges are clustered more within a region (a ‘security complex’), and thus the degree of security interdependence is more intense between the actors inside such complexes, than it is between the actors inside and outside a complex.[1] Despite a few earlier studies about such regional security constellations,[2] the duo’s work remains seminal in empirically explaining security complexes. The RSC theory assumes that actors in a specific region share or partially share a definition of threat, or construct each other as threats thereby forming patterns of durable security interdependence.[3] Beyond military and political security, interdependence may be elevated to economic, environmental and cyber security issues.[4]

Buzan and Wæver discuss four variables that characterise an RSC: boundaries, anarchic structure (without a common sovereign), polarity (distribution of power) and social construction (patterns of amity or enmity).[5] Political units in a region securitise or desecuritise issues based on individual criteria and assessment. If enmity is prominent, fear, rivalry and mutual perceptions of threat create interdependence. Such a complex is then called a ‘conflict formation’, at the negative end of the continuum. If amity is prominent, states identify common threats, coalesce to contain them and share peaceful relations. Such a complex is called a ‘security community’, at the positive end of the continuum. At the midpoint lies a ‘security regime’ where states treat each other as potential threats, but negotiate to reduce security dilemmas among them.[6] The figure below displays a three-way model of RSCs along two axes, in which both intensity of trust and degree of peacefulness have negative values (conflict formation), positive values (security community), and mixed values (security regime). 
Created by: Safal Ghimire

Three variables help determine positions of rising powers within regional complexes: regional structure (level and distribution of material capabilities to affect security), regional power roles (leadership, custodianship and protection) and regional power orientation (status quo and cooperation).[7] Depending upon the presence of powers, RSCs may be unipolar (South America), bipolar (East Asia), multipolar (Europe) or apolar (Horn of Africa).[8] Absence of regional powers at some places make RSCs underdeveloped and great powers override intra-regional security in such vacuums (condition of overlay).[9] Sometimes a great power links multiple complexes together producing a looser 'supercomplex'.[10] For example, in a reflective article a decade after the proposition of RSC theory, Buzan notes that an Asian supercomplex is gradually evident, hinging on the rise of China that links the East and South Asian complexes.[11]

The process of RSC creation is obscure and its contours are fluid. In the long run, such complexes may maintain a status quo or undergo some evolution, including external transformation (expansion or contraction of the boundary) and internal transformation (changes in polarity and social construction).[12] However, how an unstructured region (pre-complex) ripens into a proto-complex and later to an RSC is under-theorised.[13] Few studies, such as Frazier and Stewart-Ingersoll, have raised questions on the theory's emphasis on material capability (economic and military might) of a state over socio-political relations in a region.[14]

This theory is more descriptive about regional powers and less predictive about strategic interdependence. It deals less with subtle issues of globally interconnected security issues such as cyberspace, aviation, nuclear proliferation and climate security, which travel across security complexes. Future relations between complexes and the extent to which external transformation takes place are still to be explored.

Countries situated between more than one RSC are labelled insulators, whereas those between multiple powers within a complex are called buffers. For instance, Nepal is regarded as an insulator between East and South Asian complexes, but may develop into a buffer between China and India if an Asian supercomplex takes a perfect form. Some insulator states such as Turkey hold the potential to become regional powers in the long run, but RSC is insufficient in explaining such transformation.[15] Thus this theory needs regular updating to be applied to empirical studies. 

Despite agreement with neorealism upon the idea of bounded territoriality, the RSC theory emphasises regional, not global, contours of power. Neorealism explains strategic interactions in terms of maximisation of power (offensive realism) and strategies of survival (defensive realism).[16] It assumes that 'distribution of power' determines 'patterns of relations', but the RSC theory treats these as independent variables.[17] It proposes that—instead of distribution of power—securitisation and desecuritisation shape patterns of relations (amity and enmity) between a subject country, regional power and great power. In future research, more insightful would be to analyse how such powers negotiate strategic issues within and between RSCs.


[1] Buzan and Wæver, Regions and Powers.
[2] In particular, David A. Lake and Patrick M. Morgan, Regional Orders: Building Security in a New World (Penn State Press, 1997).
[3] Barry Buzan and Ole Wæver, 'Macrosecuritisation and Security Constellations: Reconsidering Scale in Securitisation Theory', Review of International Studies 35, no. 2 (2009): 253–76.
[4] Tuva Kahrs, 'Regional Security Complex Theory and Chinese Policy towards North Korea', East Asia 21, no. 4 (2004): 64–82.
[5] Buzan and Wæver, Regions and Powers.
[6] Kahrs, 'Regional Security Complex Theory'; Barry Buzan, 'Security Architecture in Asia: The Interplay of Regional and Global Levels', The Pacific Review 16, no. 2 (2003): 143–73.
[7] D. Frazier and R. Stewart-Ingersoll, 'Regional Powers and Security: A Framework for Understanding Order within Regional Security Complexes', European Journal of International Relations 16, no. 4 (2010): 731–53.
[8] See Frazier and Stewart-Ingersoll (2010) for a discussion about 11 conventionally designated RSCs.
[9] Buzan and Wæver, Regions and Powers.
[10] Buzan, 'Security Architecture in Asia'
[11] Barry Buzan, 'The South Asian Security Complex in a Decentring World Order: Reconsidering Regions and Powers Ten Years on', International Studies 48, no. 1 (2011): 1–19.
[12] Buzan and Wæver, Regions and Powers.
[13] Evgeny F. Troitskiy, 'Central Asian Regional Security Complex: The Impact of Russian and US Policies', Global Society 29, no. 1 (2015): 2–22.
[14] Frazier and Stewart-Ingersoll, 'Regional Powers and Security.'
[15] See Barrinha (2013) for a detailed discussion on Turkey’s position.
[16] John J. Mearsheimer, 'The False Promise of International Institutions', International Security 19, no. 3 (1994): 5–49.
[17] Buzan, 'Security Architecture in Asia'


Barrinha, A. (2013). The Ambitious Insulator: Revisiting Turkey’s Position in Regional Security Complex Theory. Mediterranean Politics19(2), 165–182.
Buzan, B. (2003). Security Architecture in Asia: The Interplay of Regional and Global Levels. The Pacific Review16(2), 143–173.
Buzan, B. (2011). The South Asian Security Complex in a Decentring World Order: Reconsidering Regions and Powers Ten Years on. International Studies48(1), 1–19.
Buzan, B., & Wæver, O. (2003). Regions and Powers: The Structure of International Security. Cambridge University Press.
Buzan, B., & Wæver, O. (2009). Macrosecuritisation and Security Constellations: Reconsidering Scale in Securitisation Theory. Review of International Studies35(2), 253–276.
Frazier, D., & Stewart-Ingersoll, R. (2010). Regional powers and security: A framework for understanding order within regional security complexes. European Journal of International Relations16(4), 731–753.
Kahrs, T. (2004). Regional security complex theory and Chinese policy towards North Korea. East Asia21(4), 64–82.
Lake, D. A., & Morgan, P. M. (1997). Regional Orders: Building Security in a New World. Penn State Press.
Mearsheimer, J. J. (1994). The false promise of international institutions. International Security19(3), 5–49.
Troitskiy, E. F. (2015). Central Asian Regional Security Complex: The Impact of Russian and US Policies. Global Society29(1), 2–22.

Also see:
Ghimire, S. (2018). Rising powers and security: a false dawn of the pro-south world order? Global Change, Peace & Security, 30(1), 37–55.

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