Fragile internal politics combined with complex geopolitics oblige every political leader in Nepal to try to appease India and China.
The policy of appeasement is often exercised by great and emerging powers to create alliances and at times to prevent wars, invasions and conflict-escalation. For small states like Nepal, however, appeasing contending rising powers or conflicting regional powers in their vicinity has always been a daunting task.
For rising powers like China, it is comparatively easier. As the Chinese pledges under Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) embrace railway connectivity projects and infrastructure development plans, it would be irrational for infrastructure-deficit Nepal to resist such rare opportunities. Thus paying no heed to New Delhi’s concern over BRI, the ‘pro-Indian’ government of Nepal signed up for China-led BRI framework anyway.
Fragile internal politics combined with complex geopolitics have obliged every political leader in Nepal to appease the two neighbors, even though their specific foreign policy behaviors may differ. Some political leaders prefer to appease only one neighbor at a time (New Delhi or Beijing) while others opt for two-fold appeasement at the same time. The purpose of appeasement, in the first case, is fleeting survival, mostly to protect coalition governments back home. In the second case, one can say that the complex geopolitical realities in the neighborhood have been considered.
The act of appeasing immediate neighbors to protect one’s government back home is accomplished in various ways. During his India visit in August, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba assured the political leadership in New Delhi that his coalition government was still committed to amending the constitution. He even informed his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, that his government had tried to amend the constitution but failed in the absence of two-thirds parliamentary majority.
His message was not received well back home, as he was criticized for unnecessarily dragging amendment, a purely domestic issue, during a bilateral meeting. Apparently, Deuba was not in the mood to again irk India which had already imposed a crippling blockade on Nepal right after constitution promulgation. Appeasing Indian leadership, it seemed, was indispensable to protect his government back home.
But in September, Deuba appeared a changed man. While addressing the World Leaders Forum at Columbia University on September 21, he spent most of his time defending the new statute—particularly constitutional provisions on human rights, inclusion, political freedom, women’s representations, as well as speaking about successful completion of local polls.
He even said that “the rise of ethnic politics is eroding the core principles that bind us together”. Notably, India had imposed the blockade citing constitutional deficiency over-representation of Madhesi ethnic groups. Unlike in New Delhi, at Columbia University, Deuba spoke confidently about Nepal’s sovereign foreign policy goals. “In pursuing independent foreign policy, Nepal judges every issue on its merits without fear or favor,” he said. Nepal’s appeasement policy thus seems limited to the neighborhood.
Twofold appeasement goes beyond safeguarding governments back home and also considers regional geopolitical sensitivities. The neutral stand Nepal took over the two-month-long Doklam standoff was an example of this. This demonstrated simultaneous appeasement of both our neighbors, with the conventional tactics of ‘neutrality’ and ‘non-alignment’.
Likewise, Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s proposal of trilateral partnership between China, Nepal, and India was also an attempt to appease both our neighbors at once. But, even after Dahal’s unplanned trilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Modi in Goa—at the sidelines of the Brics-Bimstec Outreach Summit in October of 2016—India is still reluctant to the trilateral idea. On the other hand, Chinese academicians and scholars readily portray Nepal as a bridge between China and South Asia; not only an economic but also a strategic bridge.
From the perspective of international political economy, India is anxious about compromising on her economic nationalism. Undoubtedly, once Chinese goods start flooding the markets of UP, Bihar and West Bengal via Nepal, India’s economic nationalism will be weakened. Even at the regional level, India’s traditional sphere of influence over core markets in South Asia is being challenged by mammoth Chinese investments and large-sized national projects.
Thus apart from shielding the government back home, what inspires Nepal to appease its neighbors is also the region’s difficult geopolitics—and this has been the case since formation of modern Nepal in late 18th century. Of course, Nepal’s neighborhood policy, on paper, is guided by old principles of neutrality, equidistance and non-alignment. These principles have not changed with regime change.
Rise of India and China has altered the erstwhile balance of power. Consequently, a new hierarchical regional order is evolving. K.P Oli’s tilt towards China during the Indian blockade was a clear example of this evolution. But the resurgence of geopolitics (as seen in the Doklam standoff, for one) can quickly alter regional hierarchy, putting small states like Nepal in great dilemma. Such a dilemma cannot be resolved by appeasing only one neighbor. Notwithstanding Lipulekh, twofold appeasement, ever enriched by growing engagements, is the only way out.
The author is a faculty at TU’s Masters in International Relations and Diplomacy