In international relations, there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests’. British statesman and Prime Minister Lord Palmerston or John Henry Temple said this more than one and a half century ago while explaining pragmatism in the conduct of foreign policy. This dictum continues to guide countries particularly big powers even today to justify their policy and pursuit in the domain of international politics. The conduct of international relations is akin to domestic politics. Foreign policy is said to be extension of domestic policy. In politics, strangers become bed fellows. Relations between politicians is always guided by partisan interests. Their relationship is often unpredictable and unstable depending upon the situation and context.
Similar is with the international relations. Countries adopt their policies and maintain relations with other countries to suit their national interest. The world has never remained standstill but keeps on changing. In the international power architecture, yesterday’s arch foes become bosom friends and today’s allies may turn into adversaries tomorrow. There is no permanent friend or ally in the international system. Values matters the least and what matters is country’s own interest. The national interest determines who is friend and who is enemy. During the bilateral world order that started in 1940s and lasted till 1992, the power alignment of the world system was different.
From the strategic perspective, the world had been divided into two vertical poles —US-led NATO group and Soviet Union-led Warsaw Pact group. Poorer and weaker countries, though, did not afford to align with any of the two blocs and chose to remain non-aligned. The non-alignment is not their choice but a compulsion. The geopolitical complication and economic and other conditions dictate them to remain non-aligned. The non-alignment is, thus, the survival tool of the weaker countries. With the rise of unipolar world in 1990s, the power structure and global alliance of nations changed. As unipolar world, now, appears to be decaying, change in the alignment of powers and countries is likely to take place. Initial symptoms are already beginning to appear.
In the pre-World War II world order, Germany and Japan were the arch enemies of the United States and Western Europe. Now they are comrades-in-arms. Russia was the ally of United States and the Western world in the World War II. The post-World War II period is better understood as the Cold War era during which Russia and the United States were peer competitors. They led rival alliances and adopted their own strategies to counter and weaken one another. The bi-polar world changed into unipolar order after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and collapse of the Warsaw Pact in 1992. The United States then emerged as the only super power and global hegemon.
International power structure has again taken a paradigm shift with the advent of the 21st century. The hitherto Atlantic power has shifted to the basin of the Pacific Ocean. Asia has emerged as a new power house in all counts. Asia is a large landmass with two major ocean systems — Pacific and Indian. Asia has different distinct regions — East Asia, South East Asia, Central Asia, Middle East or West Asia and South Asia with their own significance and global impact. Asia is home to almost 60 per cent of global population. Resource wise too, Asia is rich with both tapped and untapped ones. It is the largest continental economy accounting for almost 40 per cent of the global GDP.
Japan had already been an economic powerhouse and rise of China, India, South Korea, Singapore and Indonesia are a recent phenomenon. With elevated economic strength, some of these Asian powers are shoring up their military capability and technological advancement which is being interpreted as a strategic new normal. The Pacific basin and Indian Ocean region have, thus, turned into the epicentre of new geopolitical contestation mainly between the United States and China. Geopolitics cannot be understood in isolation or independently without considering economic and strategic factors. Geopolitics comes along with geo-strategic and geo-economic interests. The impacts and consequences of these factors are already beginning to appear in multiple forms.
While this rivalry may pose a challenge in strategic and political level, it, at the same time, may create opportunity in economic terms. The power shift to Asia, thus, is both opportunity as well as risk for Asian countries especially the smaller and weaker ones like Nepal. While big powers scramble to reap geopolitical leverage, the risk of conflict flare-up is equally high in the region. Some black clouds of such risks are already visible in the horizon. As strategic push and pull intensify in the region, some countries appear to be caught in the geopolitical crossfire while some are trying to reap its benefit.
In the new geopolitical calculus, United States is trying to woo India while India seeks to extract benefit from this reality. America and India need one another in the contest against rising China but United States needs India more than New Delhi needs Washington. China is India’s traditional rival in Asia, although China does not consider India as competitor. United States has designated China as a serious threat and seeks to contain Beijing. The common objective of both Washington and New Delhi is to check rising China, for which they seek to work together. This single purpose has brought America and India closer.
According to Indian writer Pankaj Mishra, small countries not in strategically important position lose their place in the international community and such countries are often neglected. Nepal’s location between India and China is its geopolitical and strategic strength. This geopolitical leverage should be utilised for Nepal’s national interest. Being between second and fifth largest economies and access to these huge markets can be definitely a boon for Nepal’s economy.
While, at the same time, it may pose a serious challenge as foreign powers may try to drag Nepal into their strategic orbit. But Nepal cannot afford to be caught in this geopolitical gambit of big powers nor do our constitution and foreign policy allow so. Nepal’s stated foreign policy guidelines are explicit that seek to adopt a genuine non-aligned policy refraining from being part of any power blocs.