There are critical and careful strategies of small states for their survival. The first is posing difficulty to great powers’ unwanted penetration to the nation’s vital strategic areas or vulnerable points, the second is robust self-defense build up to secure national security, viable economy, social cohesion and national identity; and the third is distraction of the attention of great powers away from an unhealthy competition with each other within the nation and acquire intrinsic capacity to defy their adverse policies and initiatives, neutralise or balance each other so that no great power becomes overwhelming in its domestic and foreign policies. King Prithvi Narayan, Premier Jung Bahadur and King Mahendra had espoused these strategies for Nepal’s survival fitness. Its foreign policy conduct now is, however, caught in some fallacies that need to be settled.
The first fallacy is rooted in the notion that foreign policy is exclusively based on national self-interest. Such an approach is basically state-centric which is possible in a world of self-sufficient state where it is occupied with its own security even at the cost of others and generates a security dilemma. The return of geopolitics marked a crack in the liberal order, diminished its clout and weakened the pillars of global governance. The world of interdependence entails a certain conceptual shift to deal with the complexity of powers and engage with them in matters of mutual interests. Most of Nepal’s problems are national in nature such as political instability, underdevelopment and corrosion of national institutions for reasons of personal and partisan benefits of leadership. These can be solved within the writ of a constitutional state.
If corruption, impunity and smuggling remain intensely vicious spoiling governance and human rights, international jurisdiction can step in. A few of its problems are regional in nature which requires pooling of sovereignty to resolve such as utilisation of water resources, flood control, human trafficking, smuggling, cross-border crimes, etc. Many international regimes such as SAARC, BBIN, AIIB and BIMSTEC, etc. are created to resolve shared regional problems. Others such as pandemics, ecological boundaries, migration, terrorism, etc. transcend regional borders requiring enlightened interests to resolve. Nepal is now caught in the cross geopolitical interests of three great powers with their conflicting initiatives — India, China and the USA. It is struggling to balance relations with them and capture a wider gaze to enhance global attention and manoeuvrability.
Landmark geopolitical, economic and technological transformation in the world is shifting balance of power to Asia requiring many nations- big and small - to seek either an adjustment with China, adopt positive neutrality, suffer mal-adaptation or defiance through countervailing alliance. The meteoric rise of China as an economic, political and technological giant and its outperformance compared with its neighbours and great powers have offered it diplomatic muscle to expand its outreach from Asia where it possesses nearly half of all GDP and military spending to the whole world. Its tools of global outreach are: global development initiative, global security initiative and global civilization initiative designed to shape rules, institutions and mechanisms of governance.
Its “friendship with Russia without limit,” de-dollarisation and win-win-cooperative regimes are leaving its rivals to engage in regional initiatives such as Indo-Pacific strategy, QUAD and bilateral defense pacts. They are designed to forestall its “national rejuvenation” driven by the vision of a “community of common destiny” by building a grand strategy of outreach to the deep sea, outer space and various geopolitical poles. China’s rise as a great security competitor of the USA does not mean two powers are destined to decouple like US-Russia relations or gripped in Thucydides Trap. Both are locked in economic interdependence and share common global responsibilities.
The Chinese zeal for the execution of BRI projects in Nepal is now cramped more by Nepali leaders yielding to the outsiders’ perception of fear of falling into a debt trap than an incentive to develop the nation. The US and the Indian grand strategies in Nepal always lingered on enticing Nepal to their aid, security, development and democracy. They have extended advice, built institutions and initiated reforms to affirm their values, not nourishing its own. India’s strategy is to get support from the West in China containment while deepening connectivity with Nepal while the latter defends Nepal’s sovereignty, security and economic progress through cooperation.
The second fallacy is parroting textbook notion of foreign policy as an extension of domestic politics. It makes foreign policy regime- oriented and ideological which often changes with the change in internal power balance, not state-oriented one whose realpolitik requires changing only when there is transformation in vital circumstances. Such a regime-oriented foreign policy is myopic, partisan, short-term, contested and risky. The fact is neither Nepal’s internal peace reflects external peace nor internal conflict projects its truculent external behaviour. Democracy and peace do not mean a democratic and peaceful world that overcomes the dilemma of deficient governance. John Kenneth Galbraith cogently argues “Foreign policy should be above ‘politics.’ A good foreign policy for the foreign policy consistency is sternly non-partisan.”
Right to sovereign existence of Nepal entails it to apply self-determination in matters of politics, law and public policies and shunning from inviting foreign forces for regime survival or change. Powerful nations’ obsession with Nepal’s strategic geography and their rival initiatives — such as US’s Indo-Pacific strategy and State Partnership Programme, China’s BRI and India’s connectivity in road, energy and economic cooperation enticing Nepal to look south. China’s counsel for the unity of left forces scares India and US, the US fears Indian Hindu forces’ penetration into Nepali parties, civil society fears diffusion of alien spies, while nationalists fear the disruption of its culturally shaped Hindu identity. The remedy lies in trust building.
The third fallacy is the lack of historically grounded foreign policy orientations and occasional tilt to one power despite its location between two powers and vaunted policy of non-alignment. On August 5, speaking at a seminar organised by foreign affairs department of the party, CPN-UML chair KP Sharma Oli raised several points: secrecy in conducting foreign policy, losing neutrality in Russian-Ukrainian war, giving one state monopoly on energy sector, Indian encroachment of Nepali territory in Kalapani area and advised experts and leaders not to pass severe comments on foreign policy to vitiate ties with friendly nations. He has also raised the helplessness of the government for not raising the inclusion of some territories of Nepal in India’s cultural map.
The debate of foreign policy experts, former foreign ministers and Nepali members of bilateral Eminent Persons’ Group also raised concern over the uncertain fate of its recommendations for reasons of Indian reluctance as the Reports grounds Nepal-India ties on equal footing. Small states like Nepal can only manoeuvre to the extent that it can enlist the support of other great powers to its side, not to replace it completely, but to neutralise its selfish conduct and perform diplomacy. Nepal has entered into a league of small, landlocked and least developed states and some international regimes to shore up defensive shields for its identity projection and gain diplomatic capacity to muster will to manoeuvre.
The fourth is articulation of many weird terms for its foreign policy devoid of contextual utility. The geopolitical school deems the state as a “living space,” where it competes with the others for resources. It evolves with the growing reality of the character of its population, ecology, economy and its interaction with other societies in advancing the scale of national progress. Securing the sanctity of national space is vital to the protection of bio and cultural diversity, national survival, economic self-sufficiency and worthy activities for the growth and progress of the state. The Nepali constitution also spells the aim of foreign policy to protect “sovereignty, territorial integrity and national independence.”
To invert Prithvi Narayan Shah’s metaphor of Nepal as a sensitive “yam between two huge boulders,” several eerie terms have been floated such as commercial transit state and vibrant bridge to extract rent from the flow of goods and people of neighbours, explosive dynamite to scare investors or habit-driven Rhino which can easily be trapped by hunters for its dullness and lack of foresight despite its power. These terms misjudge Nepal’s adaptive skill and advantage and in no way comprehends its geopolitical configuration and fortitude as a sovereign state. They can only offend national sensibility.
The ideology-based foreign policy has flagged the economic foundation of national independence as it privatised and denationalised Nepal’s import-substituting industries for rent-seeking that damaged its backward linkage with agriculture and forward linkage with the trade and commerce. As a result, always a food surplus, the nation became food deficient. The import-export ratio now stands 88 and 12 per cent respectively. Dependency and debt have soared thus limiting Nepal’s foreign policy of diversification. The only hope remains to be remittance from the Gulf region, a region which is pivoting to Eurasian poles of power where Nepal’s foreign policy maintains indifference.
Nepal’s ability to build national consensus can overcome these fallacies and set foreign policy on track of realpolitik which, at the moment, is marred by its leaders’ lack of national perspective, corrosion of institutional memory, atrophy of livelihood needs and acerbic posturing of some politicians on any issue even parading to cut the size of Nepali Army, the only state bearing national institution considering it only a tool of war, not of historical continuity of statecraft, development, relief and emergency functions. Development, democracy and peace cannot be organised in a security vacuum, a vacuum filled only by security agencies. It has now become important to seek the congruence of people, economy and the state in the national space and manage many scales of problems with corresponding interests governing the utility of independent foreign policy.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)