Nepal should not become a geopolitical chessboard
2019 has begun with a flurry of diplomatic activity for Nepal, including the visits of Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kano to Nepal and Nepali Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali to India. Admiral Phil Davidson, head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, visited Nepal while General Purna Chandra Thapa, Chief of Nepal’s Army Staff, visited India, where he received the honorary rank of General of the Indian Army, continuing a longstanding reciprocal tradition between the countries.
Its location, growing economy, market potential and resources ensure that South Asia will remain in the spotlight in 2019. Nepal’s geostrategic location in South Asia, being situated between India and China, is likely to attract interest from powerful states.
Although geographical, historical, cultural, religious and economic linkages have defined Nepal-India relations since antiquity, China’s proactive role in Nepal in recent years has not gone unnoticed.
After decades of political instability and conflict, Nepal is now moving ahead to achieve economic prosperity and catch up for the lost years. Although Nepal has immense potential in hydropower, tourism and agriculture, it lacks adequate resources to achieve the potential on its own. It needs the support of friends from the neighbourhood and beyond to meet its development goals.
During their meetings last year, Nepali Prime Minister K. P. Sharma Oli and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi seemed to have struck a good chemistry, leaving behind the bitterness of the 2015 economic blockade, which had pushed bilateral relations to a nadir. The Nepalese do not favourably view the fact that India takes unnecessary interest and acts accordingly in Nepal’s internal matters. Unlike then, India has stopped openly lobbying for changes in Nepal’s Constitution in support of Madhesh-based parties in Nepal.
At face value, bilateral relations appear cordial and warm. However, the outcomes reveal a different picture and indicate that some level of trust deficit still persists.
Gyawali’s visit to India was aimed to create positive vibes, review the status of ongoing projects and to discuss unresolved bilateral issues. The pace of implementation of India-funded projects in Nepal has traditionally been very slow and inefficient. Despite repeated assurances from India, issues related to opening new air routes through Indian airspace and exchange of demonetized Indian currency accumulated in Nepal’s banking system do not seem to see the light of day.
Another major pending bilateral issue is India’s reluctance to accept the joint report of the Indo-Nepali Eminent Persons Group (EPG), citing Modi’s ‘packed’ schedule, even though the report was finalized six months ago. The EPG was constituted to look into the overall gamut of Nepal-India relations and recommend measures to further enhance ties. The major issue of concern has always been the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship which Nepal has sought to get reviewed in line with present day realities.
The securitization of India’s foreign policy vis-à-vis its neighbours seems to have played a part for the delay in accepting the report. Although the report has not been made public yet, the delay indicates that the major cause for non-acceptance of the report is related to provisions regarding regulation of the Nepal-India open border and import of arms by Nepal from countries other than India.
With parliamentary elections looming in India, it is doubtful that Modi will accept the report. If a new bilateral treaty could have been signed, it would have elevated bilateral relations to a new height. Sadly, Modi is losing a great chance to regain the lost goodwill of the Nepali people.
The Indian government has not approved an ‘agremen’ (acceptance of credentials before a top diplomatic appointment) so far for Nilambar Acharya, the proposed Nepali Ambassador to India who, apart from being a member of the EPG, is a former minister, lawyer and diplomat. It may be premature to conclude that Acharya’s nomination will not be accepted by India. However, if that does happen, it will be an indication of the actual state of the relationship between both governments, despite pleasant talk before the public and media.
Nepal-China bilateral ties have always remained cordial. Chinese influence in South Asia, traditionally India’s sphere of influence, has seen a sharp increase in recent years. Nepal has become part of the China-led Belt and Road Initiative and a transit treaty has also been signed. Feasibility studies to establish a trans-Himalayan railway link between China and Nepal have been completed although the modality of its financing is yet to be ascertained.
The once impregnable Himalayas appear set to serve as the gateway for China to South Asia. Chinese assistance in Nepal’s development has grown rapidly. China’s strategic concern is primarily the threat posed by Tibetans trying to sneak into Nepal via the Himalayas. Nepal has always been a steadfast supporter of One-China policy, which has served well to maintain cordial relations. However, the initial euphoria after the economic blockade of 2015 seems to have fizzled out as China is skeptical of Nepal’s habit of reaching out only when there are problems with India.
Exchange of high-level visits between US and Nepal is rare. During his Washington visit last month, Gyawali met his US counterpart Mike Pompeo, who suggested that Nepal could play a central role in the Indo-Pacific. On his return, Gyawali had to clarify that Nepal would not be a part of any military or strategic alliance, to quell domestic anxiety. Admiral Davidson visited Kathmandu and met with the military and political leadership to discuss wide- ranging issues including the stalled purchase of M-16 rifles by the Nepali Army.
Japanese Minister Kano’s recent visit to Nepal was also a rarity. The signing of an air services agreement was the highlight, while his talks with Gyawali also focused on accepting migrant workers from Nepal and continuing support for infrastructure development, agriculture, education and healthcare, among others.
Both their visits came at a crucial time highlighting Nepal’s strategic importance.
Regional politics cannot remain in isolation from global politics. The US and China are engaged in an economic as well as strategic rivalry to establish their supremacy. China aims to dislodge the US as the world’s number one economy in the coming years. A bitter trade war between them could plunge the world into another major financial crisis.
China is particularly not pleased with the US strategy of involving India to contain it in the Asia-Pacific. The US has strategically started using the geopolitically constructed terminology of Indo-Pacific instead of the broader Asia-Pacific. With the alignment of US, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Australia and some of the South East Asian states against China, maritime tensions can be expected this year in the Asia-Pacific in general and South China Sea in particular. Although the US considers India a major partner in its Indo-Pacific strategy, India must weigh its options carefully and decide if it really wants to antagonize China by siding with the US.
The geopolitical stakes for Nepal vis-à-vis regional and global powers considering its strategic location are very high. Nepal should be careful not to get dragged into great power politics. In today’s world order, it is getting extremely difficult for small states to remain aloof, non-committal, non-aligned or neutral to the gravitational pull of powerful states.
The geopolitical equations seem interesting. On the one hand, India wants Nepal not to veer away from its orbit. On the other, China has already started making inroads into India’s share of the pie. Therefore, India cannot afford to just sit back and anticipate that things will fall automatically according to its plans. India’s policy with Nepal has always been overtly liberalist but covertly realist. India should use the strategic leverage of close cultural and religious ties with Nepal, which no other country has, so that the relationship could be elevated to a new pedestal. It also needs to transform its working style to cope with China in Nepal.
China is influencing Nepal through cooperation in virtually every sector in anticipation that Nepal will not act against its security interests. The US wants to maintain Nepal on its radar by assisting it in the broad areas of socio-economic development, democracy and security. Furthermore, the engagement of global and regional players like the European Union and Japan highlights Nepal’s growing strategic importance.
With global powers engaged in their own rivalries to gain supremacy, weak states are plagued by poverty and conflict. The situation cannot be reversed unless there is cooperation among all with the realization that humanity should take precedence above all. It is becoming ever harder for small and weak states not to remain influenced or affected by the power play politics of global and regional powers. Nepal should seek the goodwill of all its well wishers in its quest for economic development but at the same time avoid being a geopolitical chessboard to serve the interests of powerful states.