Throughout history military power has proven to be the last resort for Nepal to defend its national interest
“The question of justice only enters where there is equal power to enforce it, and that the powerful exact what they can, and the weak grant what they must,” wrote the great Athenian historian Thucydides in History of the Peloponnesian War. In international relations, ‘self-help’ is the last resort for the security of the state. The US invaded Dominican Republic, Panama, Granada and Iraq while it secretly intervened in Iran, Cuba, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Chile, etc without any significant opposition from other great powers. The Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan too was not militarily opposed by a third-power directly, and it is only later that the US got covertly involved in the form of training and supplying weapons to the mujahedeen, to help wage an insurgency against the Soviets.
Most of these interventions were justified based on the pretext that these were the superpowers and they could do whatever was necessary to maintain their respective spheres of influence. Similarly, India as a regional power justified its military intervention in East-Pakistan (now Bangladesh) on humanitarian grounds. Neither China nor the US could come to rescue their supposed ally, Pakistan. All these incidents suggest that international organizations like the UN alone are unable to stop wars, unless there is also a keen interest by great powers to do so.
Throughout Nepal’s history, her reliance on her allies always turned out to be misplaced, and her military power proved to be the last resort for the country’s security. In spite of alliances, China hesitated to offer military support against the British in the Anglo-Nepal War (1814-16), while British India also remained noncommittal when Nepali Prime Minister Chandra Shamsher later planned to intervene in Tibet. China and British India rebuked Nepal’s appeal for help because the opportunity cost of helping their ally, Nepal, was less than the opportunity cost of breaking their vows, considering that providing military support to Nepal would antagonize powerful states.
Indo-Nepali relations have always swung between harmony and conflict albeit without erupting into full-scale disputes, wherein India has already imposed unofficial economic blockades three times in the past 67 years in order to maintain its political leverage. It has often supported anti-government campaigns in Nepal like the Maoist movement or the recent ‘Madhesh Movement’, whenever India has felt a threat to its hegemony.
The new born separatist movement of ‘Limbuwan’ has become transnational in character that not only demands territory of Nepal, but also portions of India, thus threatening territorial integrity of both Nepal and India. In a similar vein, the demand for autonomous Madheshi provinces may develop into a secessionist movement. (In fact there are already actors in Madhesh who are advocating for Madhesh as a separate country.) Escalation of these movements might bring about a situation when Indian military intervention becomes inevitable, either to quell the Limbuwan separatists or in support of separatists elements in Tarai-Madhesh against the Nepali Government. The intervention might be on the pretext of humanitarian intervention or in the name of saving the Indian Diaspora. On the other hand, increasing Tibetan refugees’ activities in Nepal has been threatening the ‘One China policy’, which might bring about a similar intervention from China’s side.
The question that arises thus is whether Nepal can quell such separatist movements in the future or if it can face such military interventions with the support of international society. As I have already discussed above, international support for Nepal will depend largely on great power calculations: what is the opportunity cost of supporting Nepal versus not supporting it, apart from the geographical suitability of any such interventions.
Since none of the great powers including the now declining superpower US, benefit by antagonizing Nepal’s two giant neighbors, there is no chance of Nepal getting any military support, except sympathies from almost all countries around the world, especially small states, but that will ultimately amount to nothing.
South Asia has incurred the most terrorist attacks in the world since 1970, and India ranks third in terms of the highest number of terrorist attacks after Iraq and Colombia, with Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh ranking fifth, tenth, eleventh and twentieth respectively. In the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq, the rise of ISIS has brought the states in the Middle-East on the verge of becoming failed states, leading to near collapse of the state in countries like Syria and Iraq. The increasing frequency and intensity of ISIS or ISIS-inspired attacks in South Asia is the new security threat in the region.
The Shiite-Sunni divides among Muslims in South Asia as well as, the oft-troubled Hindu-Muslim dynamics in South Asia, fueled by the Indo-Pakistan enmity, could allow terrorist groups like ISIS to set shop here. Such terrorist outfits will look to exploit the latent divisions in the region, particularly in the huge Muslim countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh—ranked second, third and fourth in terms of their Muslim populations.
Keeping in view the current and emergent security situation, Nepal’s military capability is still weak and primarily suited for conventional warfare. It hasn’t yet initiated any preparation to fight asymmetrical warfare, which is the real threat to security in the region and at the global level.
The rise in the number of nuclear states in blatant violation of the ‘Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty’, especially the nuclearization of China and India, has necessitated that Nepal play an active role in pushing the agendas of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. On the other hand, as a rational state, along with socio-economic progress, time has come for Nepal to pursue military modernization that equips it with the capability of defending national security and fighting asymmetric wars. Nepal should learn from Switzerland which has consistently adopted military modernization despite avoiding participation in the great wars. Just because Nepal is small in every respect as compared to its two giant neighbors, it doesn’t decrease the importance of having a strong military to safeguard national interest.
The author has a Master’s in International Affairs from Jindal School of International Affairs, Sonepat, Haryana