Friday, 3 December, 2021

Leveraging The Strategic Geography

Dev Raj Dahal   

The rules of strategic geography provides the nation, neighbours and great powers with the possibility of a pivotal choice to survive, direct and plan for offensive policies and action for influence and defensive strategies to push back the rival, keep deterrent and acquire the freedom of manoeuvre. It supports a nation to build its capacity to wisely act as per changing geopolitical conditions spurred by technology. Geography is permanent. It reveals iron laws by which a strategy comprehends the sense of the whole nation, works to connect parts of it, defines the state, contains resources and affects a nation’s internal political evolution and the choice in external conduct.

Caught between two mega states of Asia - India to the east, south and west, and China to the north, Nepal today finds itself in their multiple rivalry and those of other great powers seeking to extend their clout, watch and contain each other and conform their initiatives. Nepal’s location has added critical value to both neighbours for their security, stability and business while for external powers to assume central stage in the global balance of power. It shares a 1,770-km border with India and 1,369-km border with China. Owing to the landlocked position, Nepal’s economic prospects for trade, commerce and transactions depend on goodwill of neighbours.

Kolkata of India is the shortest access to the sea with 704-km from Birgunj and bulk of its imports and exports flow through it. Mountainous geography, Nepali language, cultural syncretism and indomitable spirit of people to keep history of independence have made the nation different from its neighbours with separate sources of national life. Nepalis are proud of these differences, heritage of tolerance to diverse values and separate identity since the nation was unified under the leadership of King Prithvi Narayan Shah. National consciousness is derived from his coherent strategic thought and statecraft manoeuvring against opposing imperial and hegemonic paternalism and contradictory dynamics of geopolitics.

Nepal is a link nation between Central, Southeast, East and South Asia where the confluence of soft power of Hindu-Buddhist faiths, pagoda art, Sanskrit as a common source of language forming unity in diversity. The larger Hindu Kush and Himalayan snow pack remains a hot site of great game. It offers most of the water for China, Nepal, India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Pakistan and Vietnam. It is shrinking now owing to global warming and affecting the settlement patterns. Nepal has over 50,000 MW hydropower potential. So far it has utilised 1,183 MW only. Other sources of energy are solar, biogas and wind powers. They are vital to nourish its ecological civilisation. The nation is suitably situated to sell energy around South Asia and benefit from international cooperation yet they remain largely underutilised for reasons of partisan wrangling.

Strategic commodity
Hydropower as a strategic commodity has multiple uses in survival, energy, security and progress. India has a plan for a river linking project. Yet, Nepal is utilising only its sand and boulders, labour force, foreign police and armies and even peace-keeping operations of the UN and reaping remittances. The size of Nepal is 147,516 kilometres and population about 29 million ranking middle sized in the global configuration of states. Its terrain is shaped by great walls of snow-capped high Himalayas in the north, montane Mahabharat range and low range Chure hills in the south except a thin belt of fertile flatlands of Tarai and beautiful valleys serving the economic heartland. They together form a zone of national defence, ecological security and sources of water for India’s most populous and energy-starved states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.

Nepal’s four major rivers - Koshi, Gandaki, Karnali and Mahakali - are perennial sources of water. They contribute about 47 per cent to the Ganga River. Nepal is in a transition region between the blue water tower, uranium and petroleum rich Tibeta Autonomous Region of China and the highly productive Gangetic belt which is deemed as the cultural, economic and political heartland of India. The nation’s vertical shape offers three climatic zones-- tundra, temperate and tropical--, which are favourable to diversify crop production, animal husbandry, flora and fauna and variation in human features with 10 world nature and cultural heritage sites.

As a result of the tolerant attitude of Kathmandu, the nation hosts 125 ethnic and caste groups, 123 languages and over 150 religious cults. Nepal’s geography, history, culture and people have immensely contributed to its unity and independence. The Constitution of Nepal, 2015 no longer accepts a foreign policy subservient to external powers created by incongruent and disconnected politics that has fused the internal political struggle and vital national interests. Its social democratic contents have entailed it to keep good ties with communist, nationalist and liberal world and secure national interests.

India and the West favour Nepal a democratic buffer and China its sovereignty. The Himalayas, which was once a buffer against China, no longer serves this role while Trans-Himalaya Multidimensional Connectivity Network through air, road and railways, tourism, trade, transit, transport and strategic partnership with China have increased the scale of interactions and flow of goods and population. Both the countries have identified economic corridors along the major river lines which, if tapped properly, might change Nepal’s economic future and exonerate it from the bars of geographical handicap to the north.

Still, Nepal’s geophysical landscape and demographic features of elites, exposure, circulation patterns and hugely connected formal and informal economy more to the south than to the north have added to the stake and gravity of India. Open border and excessive dependence on India for essential commodities has made it vulnerable to economic blockades, trade embargo, micromanagement and regime change if foreign policy of Nepal scrambled to adopt a sovereign turn. The Indian leaders of all stripes often preferred Nepal to affirm its Look South policy which China disfavours. Incompatible territorial claims over Susta, Lipulek and Kalapani and conflicting geo-strategies have bred bilateral tensions with India at a time when global balance of power is shifting to Asia.

The impact of Western modernity and exposure of Nepali elites have marked a pronounced cultural shift and the birth of de-Sanskrtised worldview. They have helped shape political, economic and educational ideals, laws, polity, institutions and constitution and became a source of democratic affinity and legitimacy. India and the UK still keep the old British imperial legacy of recruiting Gurkhas in their armies and support Nepali armies with equipment, training and education shaping security parameters. Another shift is the flow of Nepali workers only to India to the Gulf region, Southeast and East Asian who bring more remittance than the advanced nations. It helped diversify economic relations.

India often denies China’s inroads in Terai in any development project considering its inner buffer in the same way as China opposes the Indian and the Western convergence of interests on Nepal’s northern borders facing Tibet. China is the largest investor in Nepal, a big donor and supplier of a larger number of tourists. In this context, Nepal needs to walk a delicate line between its economic, defence and diplomatic interests with China and political, security, economic, cultural and demographic affinity to India and the West. To avert geopolitical pulls, Nepal advanced an offer to be declared a zone of peace and nonalignment playing all sides, filling capital gaps and shifting diplomacy to economic dimension. The Indian strategists, however, discouraged the peace zone, considered Terai a strategic asset and supported the stir of Madhesi people to bargain with Kathmandu, the political heartland.

One group of powers favours Nepal’s reasons for state while the other supports a human rights compatible regime. But in no way has the latter enlarged Nepal’s clout and acceptance on the international stage except its unsuccessful struggle to revise all colonial treaty legacies. One senses a loss of its ability to act independently of outsiders’ influence while the toxic rivalry among Nepali leaders of various political parties for power resembles the Ranas who favoured Anglo-American orbit and fought to its side in the great wars. The integration of Tibet into China limited the room for the Western and the Indian wandering around, increased the strategic position of Nepal for great powers which are seeking to limit and pushback China to its own orbit for fear of its hemispheric economic and technological power and outreach through Belt and Road Initiatives, alternative banking, infrastructure and connectivity projects.

China desires the reunion of Sinophile left parties of Nepal to check the influence of Indian and Western powers that are based on Anglophile elites’ attributional affinity also shared by top left leaders. The Chinese and the Soviet aid to Nepal in industrial, infrastructural and education sectors in the past were aimed to reduce undue reliance on India and the West while the latter’s motive was to turn it away from communism. Now India and China seek to mould Nepali regime to its liking while outfoxing each creates a security dilemma though their trade volume reached $90 billion. The USA aiming to strength its position in the Asia-Pacific has formulated Indo-Pacific Strategy to enlist Nepal in it and formed AUKUS and QUAD security framework and even seeking to enlarge the later by alluring New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam although the latter two have refused to join China containment scheme.

Rival initiatives
The Sino-US opposition to each other through rival initiatives of MCC and BRI has paralysed leaders in the uncertainty of a high magnitude of geopolitics. They have, however, common responsibilities on the management of an array of issues — global public good, climate change, pandemic, nuclear spread and outer space beyond Westphalian focus of universe.

Now the tendrils of Nepali state have been faded by the dispersal of posts of all high public offices and ambassadors to party-affiliated persons regardless of their utility, ability and qualification to execute foreign policy goals. Similarly, the interaction among the heartland, Kathmandu, peripheries and local units suffers strains on sharing of powers, authorities and resources. Nepali leaders must assess how the geographical constraints and locational advantages the nation occupied in historical times when it stood on its own intrinsic geo-strategy and strength differ now with the advent of science and technology.

Nepal can capitalise on the demographic and economic advantage of neighbours on the basis of realpolitik, if it improves its transport, infrastructures, productivity, connectivity and human development and harnesses the nation’s resources for progress. Nepali leaders face a tough choice: maintain a careful balancing with neighbours and avoid being turned into a crossroads of Asia for spies. They can do so if the nation reduces dependency on outside powers and strengthens the state’s autonomy in foreign policy, increases investments in raising tax base, electoral and civic participation and spatial distribution of public goods to improve the system of legitimacy and efficiency.

(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)