Dev Raj Dahal
Nepal sits smugly in the centre of great powers of Asia - India and China -, not by choice but by geospatial destiny. It acquires magnetic attraction owing to its strategic geography which is vital for their security, stability and peace. Nepal’s panoramic landscape remains the central axis of sensitive Himalayan geopolitics around which India, China and the USA confer enormous value to their security policy and manoeuvring for influence. It has sucked Nepal into great power rivalry impelling its leaders to share common cause and seek more interdependent, balancing choices in foreign policy. Their recent engagements with Nepal Army has a compelling rationale, as it is the only professional and unified state institution with the capacity to act impersonally pursuing national unification trails.
Technology-driven globalisation which made the world functional even with the spread of COVID-19 is shifting global power balance to Asia. It means a new strategic tuning for Nepal renewing the scope for it to habituate with rival regional and global regimes beyond self-centric behaviour. The pandemic has imposed limited human mobility if not communication, money, goods and services. The growing interest of Nepal’s neighbours in its political and constitutional crisis now has been fervent as beleaguered Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli struggles for survival in the government following dissolution of House of Representatives (HoR) and crumbling of Nepal Communist Party (NCP) into three factions.
His rival faction, led by Prachanda-Nepal, is resorting to legal battle in the Supreme Court to restore the parliament and coalescing with multiple sites of stir to depose him. The third faction led by Bam Dev Gautam is seeking reconciliation of hostile interests of both sides either for left government or joint contest of election thus skirting the risk of revenge politics and foiling Nepali Congress (NC) president Sher Bahadur Deuba to become Prime Minister with the support of Oli faction. NC’s amphibious election-oriented agitation seeks to win both races by limping to electoral gaze and storming into mass mobilisation and protests.
The nation’s internal political polarisation and external fears have strained its foreign policy efficacy in keeping the spell of traditional balance of power and set its frontiers and buffer spaces safe from outside penetration disturbing state stability. Both India and the USA are China’s major trading partners but also competitors. They are tied by a common liberal worldview, shared narratives of international relations, the QUAD, Indo-Pacific Strategy and defence agreements. The US president-elect Joe Biden’s readiness to assume internal and international responsibilities, however, may prompt his admin to rebuild democratic fraternity, multilateralism and dialogue and diplomacy with China committing the later to a web of liberal international norms, rules and institutions aspiring to preserve global order, peace and public good.
This will enable it to reassume the mantle of statesmanship and fight a range of common issues -- climate change, pandemic, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, poverty, inequality, migration, etc. Still, the US and India are wary of China’s growing heft in Nepal, its strategic partnership to boost security, connectivity, tourism, trade, investments in hydropower, energy, transport and increase of soft power of learning from China’s experience in party, government and development, albeit the nation’s liberal Constitution. India with its own global aspiration and affinity with Russia, China’s close ally, will be less willing to be used by the US as a wedge against China and accept as a junior partner around it despite recent Sino-Indian border scuffle.
Inter-party and inter-government solidarity for democracy promotion or change of regime relativises national sovereignty fusing democracy and realpolitik. The West and India’s democracy promotion in Nepal now remains contested as they fostered postmodern neo-liberal economy, identity politics and corrosively partisan interest, not citizenship values for state building, thus fuelling centrifugal forces against heartland elites. China has also espoused its own model of a community of shared interests, destiny and responsibility based on national sovereignty and non-interference but seek regime stability in Nepal for the resolution of security dilemma.
On September 26, 2019 the ruling NCP and head of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) International Department, led by Song Tao, organised ideological dialogue on Xi Jinping Thought to deepen fraternal ties although ideology matters less than interest for Nepali leaders. The outcome was a six-point MoU to facilitate a high-level visit, exchange of party-to-party experience, visit exchanges of youths and local leaders, promotion of people-to-people ties and annual holding of ideological interactions. This was followed by another event on June 21, 2020 through video. It has dismayed the opposition NC and RPP which deemed it an effort to harm Nepal’s democratic constitution. On December 27, 2020 four-member delegation, led by Guo Yezhou, vice minister in the International Department of the CCP, visited Nepal to mend internal differences in the party.
Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Hou Yanqi had reportedly played a role in keeping the NCP intact twice earlier. China’s failure to stop the split of NCP is viewed by the Indian foreign policy experts a setback to it which is favourable to India overlooking the fact that many leaders harbour memories of the Indian blockade against the promulgation of constitution, support to agitation of Terai holding frontier mentality, hard look at upper caste hill elites for their alleged domination of the Other, slow performance of its projects and border disputes. For many years, the inclination of CPN to lift up ties with China left India and the West dejected and sought a common policy to rollback its rising influence in Nepal.
The visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping in Nepal in October last year marked a high point in bilateral ties. Both nations had signed 18-point MOU and two exchange of letters to lift up ties to new heights eased by earlier agreements on transport and transit, Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Trans-Himalayan Multi-Dimensional Connectivity aiming to transform Nepal from landlocked to land-linked nation, reduce dependence on other powers and boost Nepal’s ability to modernise its economy and assert foreign policy of its choice. Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe’s visit to Nepal on November 29 sought to enhance “mutual military assistance and strengthen the existing ties between the two countries.” Given inertia of SAARC, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi organised two webinars in July and September with the foreign ministers of Afghanistan, Nepal and Pakistan to promote regional cooperation of four nations in combating COVID-19 and enhancing progress through BRI.
Nepal-India ties are governed by shared civilisational foundation that transcends individual leaders. Now Indian perception of Nepal moving closer to China’s orbit is to misread its elites’ socialisation and their entrenched belief that without Indian support they cannot rise to power. Flurry of visits of its senior government and political officials to Nepal is aimed at improving the frosty ties caused by a wide range of issues including Prime Minister Oli’s perception that India is trying to oust him. The meeting of Samant Kumar Goel, chief of India’s Research and Analysis Wing with Prime Minister Oli sparked off controversy within NCP for failing to employ diplomatic and political channels though it unfroze communication. This visit came in the midst of shabby Nepal-India ties over the boundary issues following Indian statement of the opening of road link via Lipulek to Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet in May and Nepali government’s publication of new political map showing Kalapani, Lipulek and Limpiyadhura as Nepali territories mustering all-party consensus.
This is followed by Indian Army General Manoj Mukund Narvane’s visit to Nepal on November 4 to receive the rank of an honorary general of the Nepali Army. His visit, however, has become a matter of talk point for his remarks on Nepal’s objection to India’s opening of a road link via Lipulek at the ‘behest of someone else’ alluding to China. On November 27 Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla came to Kathmandu on a confidence building tour. Subsequently, Vijay Chauthaiwale, who heads the foreign department cell of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, visited Nepal to meet leaders from across the political spectrum to show cultural and political affinity.
The growing convergence of India and the West scares China and shores up higher stake in Nepal’s sovereignty, stability and progress for reasons to protect its investment, security of Tibet, perk up strategic partnership and connectivity and develop market outlets in South Asia. Despite Nepali government’s consistent stand on One-China policy and not allowing anti-Chinese activities from Nepali soil, the Chinese fear of the congruity of interests of some pro-Western leaders and their civilising mission through unofficial channels such as INGOs, civil society, human rights organisations, identity groups, etc. going beyond the official policy. It remains a matter of concern for the Nepali state constructed on its own genealogy of knowledge. China’s pro-active diplomacy, thus, aims at securing favourable government in Nepal which is less entangled with anti-Chinese forces in its northern region harbouring marginalised mentality and reasons of alien support to key heartland leaders and their agencies to stay high up in decision making.
The Indian suspect of China and sporadically the West, expressed in its media and diplomatic circle, has often caught Nepali leaders in an unjustified deadlock situation with BRI and MCC, not animating either of them though both have strategic value to satisfy the nation’s need for infrastructural development and transform Nepali economy from consumption to production-oriented one if their conditions are well negotiated to fit national interests. Non-implementation of agreements can erode the nation’s image, acceptability and creditworthiness in the long run. This means Nepali leaders must find a way to escape from being trapped in indecision that reduces its foreign policy autonomy to Sankritik worldview, not sovereign equality of states.
Nepali leaders hardly follow diplomatic code and protocol, the Constitution of Nepal or engage foreign ministry officials when they meet their foreign counterpart missions, officials and leaders leaving media and intellectuals speculate and indulge in multiple interpretations. Nepal, by virtue of its geographical pivot, has to maintain its classical internal and external middle path, not ideological or revolutionary one, to rationally navigate in fractious geopolitics.
It cannot afford to be neutralised by India and China, tolerate overwhelming influence of one power, sustain geopolitical intimacy to one side by alienating the other and indulge in global adventurism without acquiring stability of governance, economic progress and social cohesion and strengthening the central authority and institutions of the state’s heartland, Kathmandu and its outreach. To attain the best outcome in a geopolitical environment that is flux, uncertain and contested, Nepal has to plot cautious pathways, strengthen its foreign ministry and missions abroad equipping them with creative ideas and policies, appease the friendly nations and harness the zeitgeist with coherent foreign policy approach consistent with protection and promotion of core national interests while becoming eager to cooperate on mutually beneficial areas.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)
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