Nepal has a long history of national identity, memory of struggles to retain existence and its own worldview shaped by the consciousness of geophysical landscape, cultural mosaic, spiritual and linguistic syncretism and feeling of pride in national independence. Its anticipatory policy helped it to protect its security and sovereignty and escape from uncomfortable terms - neutralisation, buffer, sphere of influence or semi-colony as they recoil it backwards. To gain bigger picture, it has adopted many strategies: Hedging Strategy: Nepal has always pursued a risk-averse hedging policy during tensions in the regional and global milieu in the imperial days, cold war and now and demanded from the world system freedom, equality and justice. The world of multi-polarity entails to balance relations with big powers who provide norms for its behaviour and apply carrot and stick policy, depending on the conduct of its leaders.
Its aversion to substitute one power for other purports to detach ideology in interstate ties. Nepali leaders have experienced that hegemony without the responsibility to protect its security, wellbeing and identity has bred negative feelings among the people and provoked popular defiance. Nepal’s adoption of nonalignment, self-distancing, equi-proximity, regionalism, etc. in various phases of its history is precisely crafted to affirm sovereign equality. Its multi-lateral diplomacy aims to get collective self-reliance and increase leverage for bargain on issues of regional and global public good. The neo-realists believe that the international system defines the source of war and peace. The external milieu has served as a catalyst of regime change or survival in Nepal and its constitutional and institutional evolution.
Nepali leaders now must have coordinating ability about the incentives of global public good they offer to alleviate scarcity and alley fear of external power projection in the native society by stoking centrifugal forces, engaging in micro management or use any part of population as a strategic asset to weaken the nation’s survival fitness. Balancing Strategy: Nepal, by virtue of its geographic pivot, has to maintain balance into a middle path, not ideological or revolutionary one, to wisely navigate in a multi-polar world. It helps prevent internal polarisation and set its frontiers and buffer zones safe from predators infecting state weakness. Both India and the USA are China’s major trading partners but also security, trade and political rivals. They are tied by a common defence and liberal worldview, if not the shared narratives of world politics.
The US wants China to commit to a web of liberal norms, rules and institutions aspiring to preserve global order and cooperate with it on a fight to a range of issues -- climate change, pandemic, trade, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, wars, poverty, inequality, etc. Still, the Anglosphere is 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 its liberal constitution is close to this sphere. India with its own global ambition and affinity with Russia, will be less keen to accept the role of a junior partner of the US.
Both the US and China fear India financing Nepali parties for the spread of Hinduism. China views that democracy promotion in Nepal for survival or change of regime relativises national sovereignty fusing democracy and geopolitics. It has espoused its own model of a community of shared interests, destiny and responsibility based on national sovereignty thus seeking political stability of Nepal. The impulse of Communist Party of Nepal to lift up ties with China spurred India and the West to shape a common policy to roll back its rising clout. Closure of all import-substituting industries constructed with the Chinese and the former Soviet Union’s grant can be attributed to this fact.
The visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping in Nepal in October 2019 marked a high point in bilateral ties eased by agreements on transport and transit, BRI and Trans-Himalayan Multi-Dimensional Connectivity aiming to transform Nepal from landlocked to land-linked nation, reduce dependence on other powers, boost its ability to modernise its anaemic economy and assertive foreign policy. Nepal-India ties are governed by shared cultural roots, open border, Gorkha recruitment, Peace and Friendship Treaty, Arms Assistance Agreement and socio-economic cooperation that transcend individual leaders. Now it is irked over the Indian opening of a road link via Lipulek to Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet and prompted the publication of a new political map showing Kalapani, Lipulek and Limpiyadhura as its territories.
The growing convergence of the Indian and the Western interests scares China and shores up higher stake in Nepal’s stability for reasons to protect its investment, security of Tibet, strategic partnership and connectivity and develop market outlets in South Asia. Nepali leaders are caught in an impasse with Belt and Road Initiative, not animating it though it has strategic value to fill the nation’s infrastructural gaps and transform Nepali economy from consumption to production-oriented one. This means Nepali leaders must find a way to escape from being trapped in indecision and judiciously set the nation’s balancing policy like it did in the case of MCC of the USA.
Bandwagoning Strategy: In an interconnected world, a zero-sum game does not foster common aspirations for system stability. The China-India-US-Russia relations are in a flux, not stationary, in the coexistence of interests, entailing leaders to patch up their differences for a stable peace. Interdependence between the former two and Nepal is growing based on Panchasheel, the Asian version of non-hegemonic inter-state ties, a sort of bandwagoning. The US-Russia ties are zero-sum while China-US ties are not decoupled, entailing a compromise on trade to have a jolly effect on other strategic areas —Taiwan, the South China Sea and Indo-pacific strategy. As long as Nepali leaders adopt democratic values and institutions they will continue to anchor the civilising influence of India, Europe and the USA. But in no way it blinds them to China’s enormous rise to wealth, power, influence and global outreach through security, development and civilisational initiatives other than engaging it in the nation’s progress.
Nepal cannot even enhance bargaining leverage by borrowed power, manipulate the fear of rival powers or take advantage of great powers’ discord but on the goodwill of all sides by fitting closer to each of them. Diversification Strategy: Nepal has eschewed a policy of self-neutralisation in the neighbourhood, tolerating inordinate influence of one power, sustaining geopolitical intimacy to one side by alienating the other or indulging in global adventurism without acquiring stability of governance. It needs strengthening the central authority and institutions of the state’s heartland, Kathmandu and its outreach in strategic zones, buffer areas and frontiers acting as centripetal force. Nepal is getting support from India, the Middle East countries, South East and East Asia for the expansion of labour market opportunities. Nepali diasporas in advanced nations support its brain gain strategy. Peacekeeping role in the UN has increased its creative role to relieve the distressed.
Its enlarged diplomatic gaze for global acceptability and active engagement in conference diplomacy helped to gain visibility in global regimes. Nepal’s strategic geography is a key to the security and stability of both neighbours. But its vigour requires a consistent foreign policy updated by an epistemic community with shared beliefs, stakes, skills and orientation. It needs to diversify production of essential goods and generate surplus for expanding trade to mitigate poverty and muster national will robust enough to play pro-active roles abroad. Its midway welfare state aims to bridge economic divides, reduce the nation’s undue dependence and engage with the powers of all hues in a larger freedom.
Nepal’s foreign policy needs to enhance markets and investments in energy, infrastructures, agriculture, industries, health, education, communication, tourism, etc. through policy-driven strategy and secure itself from the limits of landlocked and small markets. Only then its graduation to developing nations by 2026 makes sense. Adaptive Strategy: China has offered India to work together in Nepal, Afghanistan and other nations. But the unsettled borders and strategic ties of China with Pakistan make India less excited in its connectivity projects. India is, therefore, suggesting Nepal to adopt a Look East and Look South policy. A broad consensus exists on the principles of foreign policy underlined in Nepali constitution but not on a cluster of issues which divide political leaders, the recent examples being Venezuela, Ukraine and contesting maps.
Nepal’s international performance rests on its skill and diplomatic wisdom, mainly how leaders will be able to evolve, non-partisan worldview. Capacity building of Nepali foreign ministry, embassies and missions abroad and public debate on foreign policy issues is important so that leaders do not become the victim of their ignorance or arrogance and make the nation hostage of their personal pride. Reforms are required in exalting Nepal’s acceptability thus improving its passport rank which is 7th weakest in the world and negotiation on European Union’s ban on Nepali airlines flying in its skies. Nepali leaders’ awareness of multi-actors’ concerns is central to adaptiveness of its foreign policy, thus gaining psychological rewards and reorder practical policy goals. The state hosts the sub-cultures of many great powers in every sphere of national life.
They act as geopolitical proxy for their communication, rationalisation, lobby, pressure groups and activism thus requiring regulatory policy and adaptive strategy essential to beef up national integrity system and capacity for stable political order. Negotiation skill based on reciprocity is a vital statecraft for it to enhance its core values, soft power and national interests. This cuts fears of spoilers and international financiers backing social engineering of the national society and generates hope of policy for diversification affirming multi-poles of power. Nepal’s hope of fairness and justice from international cooperation is justified for its adaptive strategy to the wind of the post-national world.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)