Security policy has become a touchy issue in Nepal. Now, it is enmeshed in the cross pressures of the strategic triangle - India, China and the United States of America (USA). Each of these nations has forwarded rival security initiatives for Nepal and enticing it to join their architectures. Each considers its initiative favourable to cultivate the national interest of Nepal, its sovereignty, autonomy and progress but each fears the others of undermining it. Each has a different zone of perception beyond linearity. Even India and China define Asian moments in their own ways in a less flat world of de-globalisation. India upholds a global liberal frame while China is pursuing Confucian harmony. Their competition is pivoted on a demand for recognition, resources, market and strategic outreach.
Both read the declining leadership of the USA and European powers and their growing disharmony with the third world nations while unbounded friendship of China and Russia and upward ties of India and Russia. Sino-Indian interaction is not zero-sum as both are members of shared regimes. For Nepal, management of this high-stake cross geopolitical pressures requires informed and robust national consensus on security at home, a sturdy political will to develop prudent behaviour, hone a passion for multi-disciplinary security experts and coherent foreign policy response abroad so that choices to manoeuvre are not hedged by a crazy ride in partisan politics. Trustworthiness in ties generates interest for mutually beneficial cooperation and resolve security issues, not putting all initiatives on hold.
The nation’s survival rests on self-creative adaptation to changing regional and global powers of amazing complexity and resolving security dilemmas. Similarly, Nepal needs to acquire a sense of independence through the protection of its territorial security and vital interests -- population, resources and culture, fulfil the necessity of life and address non-traditional security risks. They are central to its independent national identity and impulse of self-preservation. Right to independence has been claimed on the basis of national self-determination, the ability to exercise choice as per its enlightened national interests of mutual cooperation and delicate balance. Independence, however, requires economic and diplomatic clout, certain imperatives of defying, warding off adverse penetration of external interests and withdrawing from a condition that curtails the nation’s rational orientation.
Michael Mandelbaum argues, “The weak can protect its independence against the strong by employing three principal strategies: difficulty of access, active defence and diversion of the attention of the strong by rivalry with other powerful countries.” The rivalry among the US, China and Russia marked a shift in world politics. The fear of India stems from China’s vault as a global power and growing clout in Nepal deflating its predominant position. In contrast, Chinese fears of Indian links to the Western defence framework and converging interest to contain China’s rise and its connectivity and development projects in Nepal — whether financing of Pokhara International Airport, survey on Nepal-China railway project, opening of Syprubesi road or other projects under Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The rise of a left and nationalist-dominated government in Nepal has added another element of anxiety although Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda has positively stated to keep cordial relations with India. The Indian insistence to accommodate Nepal in its shared security goals including an invitation to participate in the joint military drill of BIMSTEC and expectation of positive response to its recruitment of Nepalis in a four-year military programme Agnipath sparked controversy in the nation. Nepal’s low participation in the first and second military drill of BIMSTEC in Pune, India, displeased it. Nepali decision makers are conscious of the negative public mood in joining such a military drill and sensed fear of the negative implication on its vaunted foreign policy of nonalignment.
On Agnipath, owing to public protest, the then Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba suggested to India that the matter be left to the future government. The Tripartite Agreement between Nepal, the UK and India in 1947 allows the latter two to recruit Nepalis in their respective armies, not only for four years but on a permanent basis. Nepal’s request to review this agreement, revision of 1950 treaty and implementation of Eminent Persons Group report are on hold. With the signing of strategic partnership, China has requested Nepal to become a partner in its Global Security Initiative (GSI) and Global Development Initiative (GDI) articulated by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2022 in Boao Forum for Asia. His initiative marks a response to China's containment scheme of the US Indo-Pacific Strategy, QUAD of US, India, Australia and Japan and AUKUS of the USA, Australia and the UK deeming it a strategic, security, economic and diplomatic competitor.
Liu Jinsong, Director General of Department of Asian Affairs of China’s Foreign Ministry, in his recent meeting with Nepali Ambassador Bishnu Pukar Shrestha, requested the joint execution of GSI. Shrestha has politely shorn of Nepal’s participation. President Bidya Devi Bhandari, however, attended its virtual conference in October last year organised by Chinese People’s Association for Peace and Disarmament. Nepal has always maintained its avowed One-China policy, not allowing third countries to use its territory, address bilateral security concerns and not join any military bloc.
President Xi has declared to hold the third BRI Summit in 2023 to boost international cooperation for the progress and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region and the world at large. His third term election as President is likely to set off the BRI, his flagship project to increase China’s global outreach, ease the flow of energy and resource and market integration. Earlier, two summits spelled out how to forge connectivity in the world through investment in infrastructures, construction and communication. Nepal and China signed the BRI agreement in May 2017. Initially, Nepal eagerly submitted the list of 35 projects under BRI but on the Chinese request they were trimmed down to 9 projects: up-gradation and construction of roads leading to China, transmission line, Kerung-Kathmandu Railway Feasibility Study, hydro-projects, Madan Bhandari University, etc.
During Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s visit to China in 2018, the execution of BRI received great attention as both sides agreed to expedite the execution of Trans-Himalaya Multi-Dimensional Connectivity through port, road, air and communication. During President Bidya Devi Bhandari’s state visit to China in 2019, both sides renewed commitment to the connectivity project. During Chinese President XI’s state visit to Nepal in 2019, building the network of rail was raised and he reiterated to turn Nepal from “landlocked to land-linked nation.” Yet the question about the modality of financing remains unsettled and many of its projects are on hold.
Former PM Deuba insisted on grant and soft loan to avoid the fear of ‘debt trap’ stoked by the outsiders. The recent construction of Pokhara International Airport created hue and cry in the Indian media. China fears external power’s micromanagement in Nepal, its political instability and the US interest to get Nepali government’s approval of the State Partnership Programme while Nepalis fear of its lean to the Anglosphere. The US has repeatedly said that MCC development cooperation seeks Nepal to play a central role in the Indo-Pacific Strategy, a strategy obviously designed to push back China from the south of the Himalayas, Asia-Pacific region and South China Sea. Nepal has kept the State Partnership Project on hold. Each year Nepal participates in bilateral military drill with India and China, and the US under Asia-Pacific Command and receives both hardware and software support for the modernisation of its security.
The strategic geography of Nepal is more a leverage for seeking support, not a curse or blip. It must adopt proper management of its security rather than tilting to any side and acquire reasonable freedom of manoeuvre through diplomacy — the instrument of statecraft and diversification of aid, trade, investment, technology, tourism, among others, and nourish bilateral, regional and multilateral cooperation. Ideologically-oriented foreign policy often forfeits national interest and polarises domestic forces. To become effective, the nation should often manage domestic affairs without inviting outside powers.
The new government has recently expressed willingness to reinforce diplomatic code of conduct to public officials while meeting foreign diplomats and agencies. Its 21-point common minimum programme and near total consensus to Prime Minister’s vote of confidence in the parliament indicate a fresh realisation for nation building and encourage “make in Nepal,” aiming to build the national economy, inject a feeling of change in the life of people through good governance and assert non-aligned foreign policy. It may offer the government an opportunity to settle rival security initiatives.
Restoration of the celebration of the birthday of the unifier of the nation, Prithvi Narayan Shah, is another symbolic gesture of becoming sensitive to national identity. Its leaders have learned the hard way the cost of collective amnesia about history, language, culture and spirituality having bearing on national security. Nepal should seek assistance from many regional and international institutions to diversify its dependence, create a sphere of interdependence and harness the strength of neighbours and friendly powers as a source of security, stability and progress without getting trapped its security policy among them.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)