Dev Raj Dahal
The global structure of power spurred polycentrism. It has created fissiparous tendencies of nation-states, big and small, making it disorderly for the prospect for a stable cooperation and peace. It marked multi--lateralisation of international relations without fostering multilateralism. No institution or power is capable of dictating and enforcing international law to control what Hedley Bull calls the “anarchical international system,” regulation of which is the art of civilisation. The evolution of strategic triangle shaped by the USA, India and China strongly influences the world politics in general and the Asian geopolitics in particular. The US-China ties face unhappy pass as the former sees the latter a strategic competitor seeking to revise the rules of international system game. The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently said the US is “shifting its military from Europe to face “Chinese threat to India, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and the South China Sea” adding that “he would open a dialogue with the European Union on China” and voiced “hope it would lead to tougher action”.
The US sees these states as counterweight to the Chinese power and active participants of its Indo-Pacific strategy aiming to block China from controlling the Pacific. Still, the Sino-US economic interdependence does not encourage both for a large-scale brawl but entails joint responsibility to rebuild this shattered world. The European nations have varied scales of engagement with China - Italy is a member of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the UK is member of Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) while India is in BRICS’ New Development Bank, SCO and Boao Forum for Asia though not a member of BRI. These nations defend the interest of their companies and seek opportunities for them in China.
India’s policy until recently was to maintain strategic autonomy between the US and China, uphold its independent position for reason of its great power aspiration and affinity with Russia, a close partner of China, rather than act as strategic counterweight. The US favoured India in its border clashes with China in Galwan but Russia seems neutral between India and China. The Russia-US ties are mutually exclusive while the former is in good humour with Germany and shows presence in South Asia, Gulf and Africa. The growing economic cooperation between India and China is likely to pacify their unpleasant ties compelling both to seek interdependent choices. Still, the states’ conduct cannot be seen in isolation from the ties with the other.
China’s peaceful ascent has set three trends: adjustment of many nations to its initiatives, open to it but without flouting interaction with other powers and actively engage in the US- led China containment scheme to uphold the Asian status quo. The revisionist Chinese power provided the US, Japan, India and Australia, all members of QUAD, a strategic context to sustain liberal international order and a conceptual frame even for Sino-phobic Vietnam to join it. The evolution of QUAD, however, is less projected as a full-fledged military alliance with joint strategic defence to increase collective leverage and support the American shifting policy focus in Asia.
In a fateful situation plagued by COVID-19 when world politics is constrained by the flow of people and goods, knowledge-procurement and exploration of options for cooperative relations of small states like Nepal can avoid the perils of great game, domestic polarisation and balance opposing interests. It helps to discover how wisdom of the past endured Nepal’s vitality of independence and why its struggle for existence can reshape its future. Owing to the centrality of its strategic space relevant to both neighbours - India and China-, Nepal has to construct its own security analysing the strategic shifts in its external milieu and hone the virtue of small state’s national interests beyond ideological loyalties.
Good neighbourly policy is not a matter of choice. It is a necessity to prevent external penetration, resolve conflict between the state and non-state actors and create a leverage to project its identity in world politics. The disposition of Nepal’s foreign policy goals requires keeping the nation out of their rival aspirations without seeking protection from either side. In an imperfect world order plagued by unsettled issues of COVID-19, climate change, economic deterioration and rise of nationalism, Nepali leaders have the duties to promote national interests abroad and seek regional and international solidarity. For Nepal, universal principles are reference points for its foreign policy to justify its position and struggle for voice and justice, the weapons of the weak.
One interesting aspect of Nepali public is the democratisation of foreign policy. Even ordinary citizens have begun to discuss national and global issues which used to be the prerogative of political leaders, experts, officials, academics and journalists in the past. The beauty of Nepali sentiment is that it does not hold the image of foreign country as an enemy to mobilise population for national unity except for rhetoric to deflect public attention. The virtue of non-alignment is still relevant for its adaptive foreign policy. Its interest in strategic partnership has added value to intrinsic power of the nation to mobilise resources for national development but also imposes constraints to delicate manoeuvre and a sense of distinctiveness.
Nepal’s foreign policy orientation cannot be separable from the quality of consensus of internal politics. Leadership perception of changing configuration of regional and global powers defines which nations have greater stake on Nepal’s peace, stability and wellbeing and how national interests can be promoted in various situations. The Chinese interest in Nepal has increased for obvious reasons: growth of its power and will, security of its geopolitical underbelly Tibet where many great powers of the West have converging interests, neutralise anti-Chinese forces in Nepal defining its policies, laws and activities, promote Nepali sovereignty’s ability to assert independent manoeuvre and enhance defence, trade, commerce and cultural cooperation in South Asia.
On June 28, 2020 Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli revealed a worrying sign “internal and external elements had started making movements against the present government after it issued the updated map of the nation by including Nepal’s territory encroached by India.” He sees his rivals in the party and India as a partisan meddler than a mediator to reverse the cycle of political flux. Connectivity, science and technology and diversification of international relations can help Nepal escape from geopolitical buffer, bigemony and what Prime Minister K P Oli calls “neighbours-locked foreign policy forever,” an explicit concern to diversify its relations. He boasted Nepal-China transit treaty which provided landlocked Nepal alternative sea routes for trade diversification.
National consensus is resonant in Nepal over its claim on Lipulek, a territory in the tri-junction of Nepal, India and China where the latter two signed an accord to expand trade without consulting the former and India occupied Nepali territory of Lipulek, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura. Nepal’s claim on the basis of historical proofs, however, prompted the Indian foreign policy elites to misperceive that these steps are incited by China. The Indian critical position on Nepal’s human rights and transitional justice, new constitution, imposition of economic blockade and Lipulek accord is seen by Nepali leaders a strategy to exhaust this nation. The Indian apathy to settle Kalapani and Susta, construction of road leading to Kailash Manasarovar that passes through Lipulek pass and Eminent Persons Group report that suggested measures to update Nepal-India relations added extra flaws to the unique ties.
Amicable resolution of these issues demands mending efforts beyond repulsive media bluster. Nepal-China relations have scaled up to strategic level, transforming the nation from landlocked to land-linked where China ranks top among bilateral and multilateral donors in foreign aid, foreign investment and executing the Trans-Himalayan Multi-Dimensional Connectivity Network to boost cooperation in railways, highways, ports, aviation, communication, transit and transport. As a member of BRI and AIIB, Nepal refused to share outsiders’ perception that BRI is debt trap diplomacy and remained firm on one-China policy.
Ironically, the appetite of Nepali leaders to invite foreign intervention for regime change has institutionalised external interests in every public institution without any sign of exit. It unveiled a policy paradox: while the leaders of ruling parties endorse liberal worldviews set by democracy, human rights, justice and ecological renewal. This has opened the impact of their soft power inflicting cultural cringe while their cadres and leaders are getting training and exposure on the relevance of Xi Jinping Thought for Nepal’s progress. This has created contradictions within the ruling party and even polarised stand on Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and Venezuelan crisis. Similarly, business and elite interests for globalisation where Nepal has less advantage made its economic diplomacy an extension of external interests. national freedom of manoeuvre becomes a sham if its politics in deeply mired in crisis and permeated by external interests either directly or through advice and project aid even by proxies with interests in bureaucracy, politics, civil society, business, NGOs and professional organisations. The covert or overt influence by one state in the affairs of another is inherently immoral but it is not new in Nepal. Flows of foreign aid follow the geopolitical interest of donors.
The American factor figures notably in Nepal’s decision to eschew signing Extradition Treaty with China, obligations to gentlemen agreement on Tibetan refugees, support to modernisation and signing of MCC though the last one sparked controversy in the ruling party for its inept handling and the rival’s perception of the deflation of national sovereignty. Its proponents believe that Nepal’s elevated ties with the USA would allow it not to see Nepal through the Indian eyes. Nepal’s tacit phase of diplomacy needs to be structured at multi-track level with constant communication of messages that clarify, not confuse, common interests for negotiated settlement of one after another issue. Leaders must be able to balance internal needs and cope with external demands to attain foreign policy goals underlined in the Constitution of Nepal, improve the quality of the nation’s institutional and intellectual muscle relative to the complexity of changing external milieu and pursue subtle art of steering diplomacy to fight for its own way of life.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)
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